Having lost one arm in battle, Malgwyn ap Cuneglas has reinvented himself as King Arthur’s scribe and advisor. The Beloved Dead is set at a time he calls “a season of ill omens, among the worst of my long life.” Malgwyn is an honorable man, loyal to the Rigotamos and his vision of a united kingdom, though he remains cynical about Arthur’s Christian faith – and most everything else besides. He’s also close to his cousin, Guinevere, the former nun whom Arthur loves but says he cannot marry.
And so Malgwyn chafes at two tasks he considers shameful and unwise: accompanying Arthur as he removes the head of Bran, an icon sacred to the Druids, from its burial spot near Londinium; and arranging a marriage between Arthur and Gwyneira, the teenage daughter of a Christian nobleman with whom Arthur wants an alliance.
The roads Malgwyn is asked to follow are marked by peril and death. Along both of his journeys, young women are found killed, brutalized in a horrific manner. The motive is puzzling – the girls and their families had no enemies – which makes Malgwyn ponder a possible conspiracy to shake up Arthur’s reign. Or has Arthur tempted fate by stealing a Druid relic? Remembering his own wife’s death at the hands of the Saxons, Malgwyn is affected by the killings; he grieves for the innocent lives lost and wishes he had time to investigate. His assignment of bringing Gwyneira south to marry Arthur forces him to set his feelings aside.
Fans of Arthurian legend will appreciate how Hays reinterprets oft-told stories from the canon and deftly works them into a mystery plotline. There is a large cast of characters, some familiar and some new, who have discrete and memorable personalities. Women play a greater role here than in books one and two. Guinevere is a standout heroine; courageous even in the face of abandonment and danger, she deserves a place as Arthur’s consort. Succinct recaps of events from The Killing Way and The Divine Sacrifice are included, but because of possible spoilers, anyone intent on reading those novels should do so first.
Although Latin is rarely spoken, and the Romans themselves are long gone, Arthur’s plan for consolidating and governing his realm has a decidedly Roman bent to it. Fifth-century Britain is depicted as a land in transition, with Christian, Roman, and pagan influences both warring and intermingling. The dark uncertainty of the atmosphere adds to the growing tension.
By book three, Malgwyn has started to settle down. He’s cut out the drinking (mostly), has found a good woman (his brother’s widow, Ygerne), and has formed a strong relationship with his daughter. In fact, he has become a seasoned diplomat – he’d probably hate that description – and worries that he’s lost his edge. He hasn’t. In fact, his sensitivity to the political and emotional minefields around him makes him a force to be reckoned with. Though determined to serve justice even when it pains him, he’s not immune to stress. He’s also amusingly baffled when it comes to women. Female readers in particular will discern the reasons for Ygerne’s anger long before he does.
As Malgwyn proceeds with fierce resolve along the path to finding a serial killer, he remains true to himself, yet his crime-solving abilities cleverly defy readers’ expectations. Most importantly, he knows that each successive murder is more than a plot twist or opportunity to prove himself – rather, each is a tragedy that should have been prevented. So while the aptly-titled The Beloved Dead has an optimistic and satisfying ending, as all good mysteries do, it would be hard to call it a truly happy one.
The Beloved Dead was published on March 29th by Forge at $25.99 in hardcover ($29.99 in Canada, £18.99 UK). See my earlier interview with Tony Hays for details on the first two books, The Killing Way and The Divine Sacrifice, as well as background on the writing process. See also the author's website at www.tonyhays.com.
Interested in a copy of The Beloved Dead? Or how about all three in the series? Thanks to Forge, we have a giveaway opportunity... to win the three-book set, please leave a comment on this post. Deadline for entry is April 8th.