Review: The Demon’s Parchment by Jeri Westerson

In fourteenth century London, Crispin Guest is a disgraced knight convicted of treason and stripped of his land, title and his honor. He has become known as the “Tracker”—a man who can find anything, can solve any puzzle and, with the help of his apprentice, Jack Tucker, an orphaned street urchin with a thief’s touch—will do so for a price. But this time, even Crispin is wary of taking on his most recent client. Jacob of Provencal is a Jewish physician at the King’s court, even though all Jews were expelled from England nearly a century before. Jacob wants Crispin to find stolen parchments that might be behind the recent, ongoing, gruesome murders of young boys, parchments that someone might have used to bring forth a demon which now stalks the streets and alleys of London.

Review by Yakalskovich

This is not a gay-themed book as such, it’s a straight medieval whodunnit with some gay elements, and I must say I am not really happy how some of them have been handled. Why does the one sympathetic gay character have to be a cross-dressing prostitute? And why should the protagonist fall for a proud young man, wrestling with his emotions for about two hours before he realises he’s a girl in disguise, so everything is all right again as he’s not secretly tarnished by Teh Gay?

The problems start with the protagonist himself. I understand this is an established series printed on paper, but angst does not necessarily make everything better and deeper. Crispin Guest is a drunkard former nobleman who angsts about his former life, drinks a lot at every turn, snarks at people who want to help him, then staggers and stumbles through his investigation with an unexplained instinctual gift and a lot of serendipity that lets him happen on evidence (and, finally and inevitably, the solution) before he keels over drunk again.

Then there is the thing about inserting contemporary sensibilities into a historical story. Jeri Westerson at first evades the trap ostentatiously by having Crispin matter-of-factly share the contemporary prejudice against Jews, believing wholesale the nonsense fabricated about them in England prior to their expulsion in 1290 — which is almost a hundred years in the past for the late medieval post-pestilence setting of 1384. After demonstrating that she will have the N-word said, so to speak, for the sake of historical correctness, she then gives it all away by pulling a full Dostoevsky when the first murdered boy is discovered:

“The men about Crispin kept their vigil, murmuring prayers quietly beside the stricken  boy. Crispin uttered no prayers. He could not. He found it hard to ascribe to a God who would allow mere men to debase such innocence. Who would murder a child? And in such a way? Not out of sudden anger with a blow to the head to teach him better, an accident perhaps. But in a deliberate act of cruelty and barbarism, for surely such steady strangulation, looking into the eyes of the child as he struggled to breathe, was not the act of a man. Not a man who walked the earth among other men. No one who breathed the same air, ate the same food, watched the same stars ebb and flow across the sky.” (p. 17)

I am sorry, dear Ms Westerson, but that is not how a medieval man would have thought about children. The concept of childhood as a state of being that is quite separate from the adult human state is something that wasn’t developed until the 19th century, and the special horror reserved for sexual child abuse as the utmost of crimes is quite modern. Medieval men thought nothing of marrying twelve-year-old girls to men triple their age if it suited their fathers’ business or political connections. Pauper children got under the wheels of fate, survived or not, and nobody cared much about them. There being brothels offering boys would have been abominable for the sake of the ‘sodomy’, not because they were still children, more or less. Of course there were brothels offering boys — what else should the sodomites sodomise?

From then on, the story splashes from one pothole-full of gooey trope into the next. Of course the Jews study the traditions of the kabbalah (which was then in fact relatively new, having been developed around the same time as Christian scholasticism), and of course, once you say kabbalah, you have to say Golem. Oh, and of course the One Sympathetic Gay character is as horrified by the idea of children being prostituted and abused as the main protagonist is. Of course Crispin sees the light about Jews in general and starts to protect them, abjuring his prejudices. Of course the fascinating young man is secretly a girl and only then can be snogged back (as mentioned before — but that is the point where she really lost me). And of course everything is hushed up at the end, and nobody is interested in the truth, so Crispin resumes his drunken staggering about, insults some kind people some more, and angsts a lot, to everybody annoyance, including this reader’s.

This book may work as a medieval whodunnit of the sort that people read by the stack on long plane rides. As such, it is quite entertaining, if in an annoying way where you forge towards the end just because you want to know just how serious the author expects us to take her clichéd Golem. That’s why this is worth two stars, not just one. But a milestone in GLBT historicals? This definitely is not. Sorry.

Author’s website: http://www.jeriwesterson.com

Buy from:  Amazon UK    Amazon USA

One Response

  1. That sounds awful actually. Thank you for the review.

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