Will is a 14-year-old orphan boy in the winter of 1347. He’s been fortunate enough to find food and shelter working for the monks at Crowfield Abbey in northern England, though he’s feeling far from lucky. The abbey is poor and although the monks are good-hearted enough to take him under their wing, he finds that they tend to be cold, seeing him as a source of cheap labour more than anything else. Only the crippled Brother Snail (so named because of the condition which is curling his spine into a permanent stoop) and the somewhat simple farmhand Peter see Will as a friend. But Will also knows that he shouldn’t complain, as the alternative to a life of hard work with the monks of Crowfield Abbey is starvation in the world outside. In spite of the drudgery, this is Will’s best chance for a normal life.
Will’s life becomes anything but normal, however, while walking through Foxwist Forest behind Crowfield Abbey. A poacher’s trap has caught something other than your normal woodland creature: a hob, a small faerie with magical powers who is nonetheless thwarted and badly injured by the iron trap. The hob’s plight touches Will’s heart, and Will frees the creature, and takes him back to Brother Snail (who knows a thing or two about medicine). Brother Snail and Will agree that the hob has to be kept a secret from the other monks, who’d be far less understanding about having a faerie in their midst. Fortunately, the hob is very good about making itself unseen. It’s only Will and Brother Snail’s unexpected gift of “the sight” that allow them to see the hob in the first place.
Finally, Will goes back out into the forest to do something about the poacher’s trap. Deciding to drop it some place no one will ever come to retrieve it, he sets off towards the Whistling Hollow, a spooky corner of the forest that nearby villagers avoid at all costs, and which even the monks have warned William off of. This is a place of dark magic, it is said, and the realm of powerful faerie creatures that take a very dim view of trespassers. Despite having met a hob — a specimen of faerie magic — Will braves this insanely dangerous journey, and manages to drop the poacher’s trap in the bottom of the pool at the centre of the Whistling Hollow. Miraculously, he escapes unscathed, although there is a definite sense that he’s set something in motion — something big and dangerous that the monks themselves are keenly aware of, but are too frightened to speak about.
So begins Pat Walsh’s The Crowfield Curse, a young adult historical mystery with fantasy trappings. Part Cadfael, part Tam Lin, I found this debut novel to be an interesting read. I’ve not really gotten into historical fiction, or even historical mysteries, but Walsh’s introduction to this world struck the right balance between historical detail, political intrigue, and legendary fantasy. It’s not perfect; I think it could have used another pass to tie the elements together, but it’s certainly worth the cover price.
With Will, Walsh gives us a good window on the life and times of a poor abbey in medieval northern England. Acting primarily as an observer who manages to go around unnoticed by people who constantly underestimate him, we see through his eyes the interesting juxtaposition of the stolid monks and the more attractive and more sinister faeries that flit around, pursing several different and discordant agendas. Will is instantly sympathetic, both for his compassion and bravery, for the unfortunate circumstances that led to his arrival at Crowfield Abbey, and finally for his frustrated ambition of becoming a musician (thwarted thanks to the fact that he’s dirt poor, and Prior Ardo — the de-facto leader of the monks, now that the Abbot is near death — detests music that isn’t in the service of God). The other characters Will meets, from the monks, to some of the local villagers, and more, all intrigue the reader by having something to hide. The story turns on the arrival of a mysterious man known as Master Bone, and his (clearly faerie) servant named Shadlok. Their appearance sets in motion a faerie power struggle that threatens to swamp Crowfield Abbey and the monks inside.
As intriguing as this all is, I wasn’t completely satisfied with the book as a whole. I found there were too many loose ends in the tale. Will’s trek into the Whistling Hollow to dispose of the poacher’s trap does not connect up with Master Bone’s agenda against the dark forces of the wood — except to show how brave Will is in confronting these supernatural forces, and to give Shadlok the barest reason to trust the boy. A number of other details about some of the villagers in the tale are dropped in with considerable import, but are never followed up upon. At the end, The Crowfield Curse is suddenly transformed into the start of a possible series of books, so this may be one reason why so many details are set up but not knocked down, but the transformation of this novel into the start of a series is done too quickly and feels forced. Rather than leave the novel as a satisfying whole with a promise of more to come, I’m left feeling unfulfilled, and manipulated into buying the next book of the series.
But these are the only flaws in an otherwise good novel, which draws a fascinating picture of historical England and adds faeries into the mix. It is a powerful tale told in subtle fashion, and will make for an excellent bedtime read. I give it a solid three stars out of five.