This was a recent purchase. I'm not sure where I first came across it... maybe on Goodreads, maybe on a blog. You don't see too much fiction set in England centuries before the Conquest, unless it's about the Romans or King Arthur (or written by Bernard Cornwell), but novels of early medieval times have always appealed to me. I wish there more of them.
Fridgyth is an herb-wife at the double monastery at Streonshalh in Northumbria in 664 AD, a year that anyone familiar with the period will recognize. While Fridgyth tends to her duties outdoors, a large religious debate is in progress inside. Kings, queens, bishops, and other church leaders from far and wide have gathered to decide on a controversial issue that will have far-reaching impact: whether to follow Roman or Celtic practice in calculating the date for Easter and the style for monks' tonsures.
The Synod of Whitby, as it would later be known, involved complex and lengthy liturgical arguments, but Tomlinson makes them understandable for the reader. She provides good examples of each party's concerns and lays the royal families' genealogical relationships out cleanly, too.
As her quiet community reels at the shock of King Oswy's ruling — he decides in favor of Rome — Abbess Hild confides her despair to her good friend Fridgyth while keeping her guests entertained and well fed. Two young Irish scholars arrive in the midst of this troubled atmosphere, and at least one of them is other than he seems. Then a virulent strain of plague hits Streonshalh, which makes it hard for Fridgyth to notice at first that some of the deaths had a more sinister cause. Once she does, her investigation begins in earnest.
Despite the spread of Christianity, pockets of pagan belief still linger in 7th-century Northumbria, especially amongst the common people. Fridgyth herself is half-pagan, and she has the amusing habit of exclaiming "Blessed Freya!" at unguarded moments. She also defends her non-Christian friends' wishes to burn their dead and their belongings... she even urges it, saying that fire will kill off the plague. Even while serving as leader of her religious flock, Hild practices tolerance as well.
Tomlinson gradually weaves Fridgyth's personal history into the storyline. She's no longer young — like Abbess Hild, she's in her fifties — but her present circumstances call to mind her lost family, and the possible rekindling of a lost love.
Although Fridgyth is a fictional character, much of the novel's historical background can be found in Bede, including the presence of a cowherd named Caedmon with a gift for lyric poetry. (His imagined verses are included, and they're very good.) The seaside setting of Streonshalh is easy to picture, from the monks' heather-thatched huts to the area's rocky cliffs and the curious snakestones found beneath them.
In this realistic yet gentle mystery, the harsher aspects of life are treated accurately without being presented in burdensome detail. The version I read has some typos and misplaced punctuation, and one section of repeated text, but was otherwise well edited. A novel of strong women, warm friendship, and political intrigue set at a turning point in English history, A Swarming of Bees may be written for an adult audience, but YAs should enjoy it too.
A Swarming of Bees was self-published through Acorn Independent Press in December 2012 at £7.99 (pb, 290pp). American readers can buy it on Kindle at $4.99 (it's worth it). The latter two pictures are public domain images from Wikipedia. [Update, 1/18: Per the author, the book is in a 2nd print run, and the errors have been fixed.]