Book Review: The Spoils of Avalon by Mary F. Burns

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Title: The Spoils of Avalon
Series: A John Singer Sargent/Violet Paget Mystery Book One
Author: Mary F. Burns
Publisher: Sand Hill Review Press
Publication Date: November 1, 2014
Genre: Historical Mystery

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“An artist, a writer, a murder, a mysterious tome, a dissolving time, a crime,
Arthurian legends, ancient saints books and bones. Burns’ prose drives and
is sublime, with characters and settings that live on in your mind. This is an
original historical mystery connecting the Age of Industry with the Age of Miracles.”
– Stephanie Renée dos Santos, forthcoming novel: Cut From The Earth

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The Spoils of AvalonThe Spoils of Avalon
A John Singer Sargent/Violet Paget Mystery Book One
Mary F. Burns
Sand Hill Review Press, November 2014
ISBN 978-1-937818-28-9
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

The death of a humble clergyman in 1877 leads amateur sleuths Violet Paget and John Singer Sargent into a medieval world of saints and kings—including the legendary Arthur—as they follow a trail of relics and antiquities lost since the destruction of Glastonbury Abbey in 1539. Written in alternating chapters between the two time periods, The Spoils of Avalon creates a sparkling, magical mystery that bridges the gap between two worlds that could hardly be more different—the industrialized, Darwinian, materialistic Victorian Age and the agricultural, faith-infused life of a medieval abbey on the brink of violent change at the hands of Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell.

First in a new series of historical mysteries, The Spoils of Avalon introduces two unlikely detectives and life-long friends—beginning as young people on the verge of making their names famous for the next several decades throughout Europe and America: the brilliant and brittle Violet Paget, known as the writer Vernon Lee, and the talented, genial portrait painter John Singer Sargent.

Writing a novel in two different time periods is nothing new but doing it really well is not so easy. The Spoils of Avalon is, to my way of thinking, a prime example of doing it oh, so very well. I was intrigued when offered the chance to read and review this because I’m fond of both the Arthurian legend and its time and the Victorian period for historical fiction and historical mysteries (not to mention pure historical nonfiction). Ms. Burns not only didn’t fail me, she gave me one of the best reads I’ve had all year.

The first thing I have to mention is the tone of the alternating chapters. By that, I mean there is no mistaking whether it’s 1539 or 1877 because the author has such a fine sense of the language and the syntax of each time and the events that were occurring, historically speaking. Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell were in the midst of destroying the monasteries in 1539 and the fear and disillusionment felt by the Abbot, the young monk, Arthur, and other abbey monks who gave their loyalty to the Church is palpable. Looking back from today, we know how Henry and Cromwell rampaged through all the church holdings, taking their wealth for the Crown and leaving the English Church in ruins. Contrasted with that time is the Victorian era and it’s industrialization and the beginnings of women’s freedoms. Violet and John speak in the mode of language you would anticipate and show the signs of modernity that would have certainly been evident in 1877 England.

The characters, primarily Arthur, John and Violet, all came to life for me. I felt the Abbot’s distress and Arthur’s devotion to the man while he was having doubts about his own future as a monk. Seeing Arthur in a teenaged role was interesting, lending a new facet to the king he was to become. John’s love of art, in this time before he gained fame, runs throughout the story and it’s his eye for detail that makes him such a good sleuth. Then there’s Violet, a woman I had not heard of before who made a name for herself as a writer in a man’s world. In Ms. Burns’ hands, Violet is incredibly engaging and intelligent with a wit that enlivens her conversations. She has joined the small group of Victorian sleuths I call my favorites.

Getting to the bottom of how Reverend Crickley met his untimely end is, of course, the core of the tale and it’s a very pleasing bit of sleuthing that John and Violet take on. Is the less-than-totally-charming Lord Parke somehow involved? The housekeeper, Mrs. Barnstable? The lawyer Wattendall? And what is the motive behind the death?

Anyone in search of a truly engaging mystery with depth of character and plot and interesting historical settings would do well to pick up The Spoils of Avalon, first in what I hope will be a very long series.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, November 2014.

About the Author

Mary F. BurnsMary F. Burns is the author of PORTRAITS OF AN ARTIST (Sand Hill Review Press, February 2013), a member of and book reviewer for the Historical Novel Society and a former member of the HNS Conference board of directors. A novella-length book, ISAAC AND ISHMAEL, is also being published by Sand Hill Review Press in 2014. Ms. Burns’ debut historical novel J-THE WOMAN WHO WROTE THE BIBLE was published in July 2010 by O-Books (John Hunt Publishers, UK). She has also written two cozy-village mysteries in a series titled The West Portal Mysteries (The Lucky Dog Lottery and The Tarot Card Murders).

Ms. Burns was born in Chicago, Illinois and attended Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, where she earned both Bachelors and Masters degrees in English, along with a high school teaching certificate. She relocated to San Francisco in 1976 where she now lives with her husband Stuart in the West Portal neighborhood. Ms. Burns has a law degree from Golden Gate University, has been president of her neighborhood association and is active in citywide issues. During most of her working career she was employed as a director of employee communications, public relations and issues management at various San Francisco Bay Area corporations, was an editor and manager of the Books on Tape department for Ignatius Press, and has managed her own communications/PR consulting business, producing written communications, websites and video productions for numerous corporate and non-profit clients.

Ms. Burns may be contacted by email at maryfburns@att.net. For more information please visit Mary Burns’s website. You can also connect with Mary on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads, or read her blog posts at:

www.jthewomanwhowrotethebible.com
www.literarygracenotes.blogspot.com
www.portraitsofanartist.blogspot.com
www.sargent-pagetmysteries.blogspot.com
www.genesisnovel.blogspot.com

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