An eerily haunting opening had me wondering for a while if I was venturing into a medieval horror novel. I wasn't! The prelude fittingly sets the scene for what is to come.
It's February, 1577. As winter still encloses Northern England and Scotland, Ursula Blanchard is sent on another mission by Sir William Cecil for the Crown. Her quest is two fold--to deliver missives to James Douglas, Earl of Morton, at Holyrood in Edinburgh concerning Queen Mary and conspiracies surrounding her; and to purchase an illuminated book, heretical in nature for Queen Eliazabeth's magician, Doctor Dee. The relic is at Stonemoor House, an unofficial convent in the wilds of Yorkshire. Ursula is also tasked to delve into the disappearance of two men who went missing when undertaking the same requests. One of the men is her beloved friend Christopher Spelton.
Accompanying Ursula is her manservant Roger Brockley, his wife Dale, Ursula's tirewoman, and Gladys Morgan, a Welshwoman and herbalist.
The story takes us to the wintery slopes of Yorkshire and the moors, into a lonely manor house serving as an Abbey, inhabited by a group of Catholic women who practice their papist beliefs during Elizabeth's reign. As Cecil explains to Ursula, 'It isn’t illegal to be Catholic ... as long as there is no attempt at making converts.' Sir Francis Walsingham, who is fanatically anti-catholic has hitherto left the ladies alone, but he is aware of their practices and sees them as a means to rooting out Spanish papists come to England to cause dissent and disruption to the political landscape and to threaten the throne itself.
Ursula and her party find themselves stranded at Stonemoor House as the weather sets in surrounded by a group of pious women where trouble brews just below the surface. Abbess Philippa Gould appears to be an intelligent open minded woman, however her sister Bella is disturbed by the book she categories as 'evil'. She is very forth right about wanting it destroyed.
This journey has Ursula confronting some truths about herself and her needs that she has hitherto ignored.
A NetGalley ARC