In the year 1355, Mistress Margaret Kendall, wife to a merchant of the City of London, hears a Voice directing her to write a book. It is not the first instance she’s heard that Voice – it’s always brought great changes. Illiterate but determined, she convinces everyone she is under marching orders from God himself — except for Brother Gregory, her grouchy scribe, who has taken on the disgraceful job of copying for a woman only because his purse is empty and his stomach even emptier, both pressing him to find and keep any job available. Margaret’s household is famous for excellent, home-made ale and good cuisine; Brother Gregory, to his silent disgust, gets addicted to both very soon.
However, as Margaret narrates the story of her adventurous life as midwife and healer, the man of God and the prospective monk in Brother Gregory grows sourer and sourer. Could it be that she has actually been guided by the very Vision of Light that has always eluded him? He, who had ran away in order to serve the God Almighty, risking the wrath of his father and the contempt of his entire noble family? Still as the narration progresses Gregory gets curious almost despite himself: how a poor country girl managed to survive so long and to capture one of the wealthiest merchants of London in the process?
What I liked:
Derived from the writings of medieval women mystics like Margery Kempe, A Vision of Light depicts the raucous, colorful, and dangerous life of the middle ages, moving from countryside to city, giving accurately researched sketches of life in 14th century London, during the first great epidemic of the Black Plague, and under the English Inquisition. Reading it I heard almost constantly Carmina Burana in the background.
Margaret as the main lead won me over totally with her honesty and a sense of humour. She was such a humble but gifted girl and the beginning of her adult life was so harsh that you had to feel for her and hate that big, horrible, ugly wart her first husband was. I also liked Master Kendall, a man of experience, very sensible, refined and kind, and Brother Gregory who, with his misogyny and curmudgeonly disposition, was a perfect foil for Margaret. I liked the bond those two shared and the dynamics between them.
The pace of narration was fast so I didn’t get bored one single time. In fact sometimes I caught myself thinking that the book would be better if only it was a bit slower. Still the atmosphere of medieval England was rendered in a great way – while reading the book I had a feeling of total submersion and I was leaving only when I really had to, with a lot of reluctance. It was obvious that the author did her research and was truly passionate about it – something I love and appreciate.
The paranormal elements – namely the healing gift Margaret got from God along with an ability to see ghosts – were presented very well. Margaret, despite her elation, never turned into a religious zealot even though she was aware she was special. Had she been a nun she could have been declared a saint, perhaps even before her death. Still she never had any inclination to follow that path, being closer to contemporary people, with a vivid personality and a sense of humour. There are also ghosts, demons, psychotic nobility, poisoned rings, loaded dice, and a cross that Margaret wears around her neck which burns the hands of unworthy people. These things in and of themselves seem ridiculous, but Riley weaves these quirks into the story, which only makes the plot more interesting.
What I didn’t like:
It is the first part of a series and yet reading it I had a strong impression the author didn’t plan it that way. Why? Simply too many things happened in it. Margaret’s life was like a whirlwind: she got married for the first time and had the plague and escaped her husband and saw her first vision and met Hilda and learned how to heal, and went away with a troupe of troubadours and jesters and walked on glowing embers and started her London career as a midwife and was accused of heresy…I could continue that list on and on (but I won’t because I don’t want to spoil anyone). Margaret could have shared such an eventful life with two or even three people. There was also another thought: after finishing the book I asked myself: ok, what else could happen to that woman to deserve a second installment and even a third?
Despite some blunders a great tale about an intrepid woman living in interesting times. I do recommend it for fans of good historical fiction set in 14th England and, generally, fans of great stories with paranormal elements.