Oathbreaker by Martin Jensen, translated by Tara Chace
I had been keen to read Oathbreaker since enjoying the first novel in Martin Jensen’s Halfdan and Winston series, The King’s Hounds, back in November. While it was not a perfect read, I loved the vivid historical setting, striking characterization and the little historical details Jensen incorporates throughout the novel that bring the past to life.
The King’s Hounds seemed to be driven with the external pressures on the two sleuths to solve the crime quickly and tidily. Here we see them given more time to solve a mystery but also placed in a situation where they are not able to use the threat of the King’s displeasure to force compliance from unwilling witnesses. This case requires them to utilize a different skill set and the story has a slightly different texture and tone as a result.
The book incorporates an interesting mix of elements, some of which feel quite fresh while others will be more familiar to readers of early medieval mysteries. We have a monastic setting, a bitter dispute between two groups of priests and a monk who appears to be hiding from a bloody past. What elevates these familiar period elements for me is the way they are used as a starting point to explore the political and religious conflicts of this period.
A somewhat insolent monk who has been sent to the church to reflect on his conduct is discovered dead in the middle of the night. His body has been arranged into the shape of the cross and his right hand has been severed from his body. When a representative of the Thane recognizes Winston and Halfdan from the events of the previous book, he requests their assistance in investigating the matter. In doing so the pair must navigate that bitter rivalry between the two monasteries, discover the dead priest’s true identity and work out how these events relate to the threat of a possible insurgency in Mercia.
While this case may appear to offer lower stakes for our sleuths than their previous one, I appreciated the interesting mix of suspects and I enjoyed learning about the historical background for the crime. For those interested in the events, Jensen includes several pages of historical notes citing his sources and giving more detail.
I was a little disappointed that the most interesting and entertaining character from the first book, King Cnut himself, does not feature directly in this novel though this was probably necessary to give our two sleuths space to establish themselves independently of him. Still, though we do not see him though we are still aware of his presence and I continue to find him an intriguing, ruthless and complex figure even from a distance.
One of the aspects of the first book that I didn’t care much for was Halfdan’s aggressive sexuality and I was pleased that this second book tones that down quite considerably. He remains a letch and we still have to read his assessments of female characters primarily through their looks but the second half of the book gives one of its female characters more to do than any of the women in the first title.
On a related note, Halfdan feels a much richer character here independent of Winston. We see him exercising more initiative in his investigations, coming up with some critical deductions at a key moment in the story drawing upon his own knowledge and background, and he clearly has a stronger sense of purpose than in the first novel. It is clear that he is more than just a Watson to Winston’s Holmes – he is a competent investigator in his own right. I did miss their interactions a little though.
Winston does not participate quite so visibly in the key moments of this investigation but he does have an entertaining if slight character arc of his own in the second half of the novel. There is one development in particular later in the novel that I felt promised an interesting change for the character and I am curious to see how that may affect him in the next novel in the series.
Overall I was more than satisfied with this second installment of the series and felt that the tweaks made to characterization and the shift of emphasis generally worked to the material’s benefit. Where the previous book was arguably a stronger historical novel than mystery, Oathkeeper is the more satisfying mystery. I continue to find this setting fascinating and look forward to seeing what may be in store for Halfdan and Winston in the next volume at some point soon.