The Virgin in the Ice


Ellis Peters


Mystery / Thriller


Date Reviewed:

September 13, 2022

y sister, whom I think has read the entire Brother Cadfael series, told me that this was her favorite book in the Cadfael Chronicles. The Virgin in the Ice is my sixth Brother Cadfael novel (I am trying to read them in order) and, so far, this is the best one that I have read. Not that any of the previous books were bad, but Peters seems to have perfected the art of writing a the historical mystery with this sixth entry in the Chronicles. The characters, plot and descriptions of the medieval world all ring true, reading The Virgin in the Ice is to be transported back to icy cold England in the twelfth century.

It is the winter of 1139, and snow and ice blanket the kingdom. The fierce civil war between King Stephen and Empress Maud has brought fighting to the nearby town of Worcester. The forces of Maud sacked the town, and it inhabitants fled into the winter weather. Among the missing Worcester civilians are the thirteen year old heir Yves Hugonin and his headstrong but beautiful sister, the 17 year old Ermina. These two fled the destruction of Worcester in the company of a young nun, but without a guide, protection or provisions. Where in the winter drifts might these important youngster have gotten - did they managed to struggle to sanctuary in one of the surrounding villages, or do they lie even now beneath the drifting snow mounds?

Word comes to Shrewsbury Abbey that a grievously wounded man was found alongside an icy road - the poor victim was stabbed and beaten and left to freeze to death. Even now this injured man, a monk, tenuously clings to life in Bromfield Abbey. Brother Cadfael is known for his skill in healing, and Prior Leonard of Bromfield is aware of Cadfael's sterling reputation - might Cadfael venture to Bromfield and use his healing arts to save the monk's life? Of course Cadfael goes - he ventures out across the snowy landscape and naturally gets involved in multiple mysteries: where are the Hugonin children? Who stabbed the monk, and why? Even worse, as Cadfael investigates, he discovers a young woman lying in a frozen stream - the beautiful woman was obviously violated and then violently murdered - there is blood upon her, breast, though she bears no wound there. Clearly she fought back and somehow injured her assailant. Might this dead woman be the missing Ermina Hugonin? But then where is her brother?

Unlike the previous novels in this series, this book seems to have a broader scope. Rather than the usual mystery (who is the murderer or thief?) with a small cast of characters, The Virgin in the Ice covers bigger events - there is the destruction of Worcester, but there is also the problem of a marauding band of raiders loose in the countryside. Cadfael himself doesn't play as prominent a role in this novel, the plot follows other characters through the different events. Although the paperback edition is just 201 pages long, Peters packs in a lot of plot with economical story telling. This is not to say Peter's skimps on description, quite the opposite. Indeed, it seems as if Peters has a magic mirror that allows her to peer back in time to see how people lived nine centuries ago. There a many brief descriptions or small details of how people lived and worked back then. They way the characters talk and think is plausibly described. Peters must have visited these places, walked the very hills that Brother Cadfael would have trod (except, of course, Cadfael is entirely a fictional character, he merely seems like real life historical figure.)

The following is a paragraph describing the fickleness of fate, how random circumstances of birth condemn talented men to a life of obscurity, while blessing the mediocre men to positions of power and prestige. I admire the Peters word usage - it sounds like how I imagine a twelfth century citizen would think:

Well they happen, the lightning-strokes of God, the gifted or the misfortunates who are born into a world where they nowhere belong, the saints and scholars who come to manhood unrecognized, guarding the swine in the forest pastures among the beechmast, the warrior princes villein-born and youngest in a starving clan, set to scare the crows away from the furrow. Just as hollow slave-rearlings are cradled in the palaces of kings, and come to rule, however ineptly, over men a thousand times their worth.

I admire how Peter's use of words when describing Cadfael's world. Here are a few examples of her descriptive words when Cadfael ventures out on a winter journey: "the shrewd grip of winter", "iron frost", "swags of blue-black cloud", "the malice of the wind". If I were an author trying to think of ways to describe winter's fury, I doubt I could come with such verbiage.

Finally, Peter's really seems to have nailed her characterization of Brother Cadfael. His wisdom, kindness and keen insight into human foibles really shines through on their pages. Hopefully, now that Cadfael is so well defined, the rest of the series will show him off in a variety of mysteries. Onward to book seven, The Sanctuary Sparrow.