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The Apothecary Rose is the first book in the Owen Archer series of historical mysteries set in fourteenth century England and is written by Candace Robb.
Candace Robb is an American who now divides her time between her home in Seattle and researching her novels in the UK. She has a PhD in Medieval and Anglo-Saxon Literature which she uses to brilliant effect in this series. There are ten books in the series so far.
Owen Archer was a captain of bowmen in the service of the Duke of Lancaster until he lost the sight in one eye. Now he has been tasked by John Thoresby, Archbishop of York, to investigate the suspicious deaths of a couple of pilgrims that have occurred just outside the city limits, one of whom is his ward. Both victims had previously taken a herbal remedy prepared by the apothecary, Nicholas Wilton and Owen travels in disguise to York and apprentices himself to the apothecary where he works alongside Wilton and his beautiful wife, Lucie, whilst trying to solve these murders. As the death toll mounts, Owen begins to unravel the mystery and is very reluctant to face up to the fact that a great deal of the evidence points towards Lucie, of whom he is becoming fond, being one of the chief suspects.
Like most first books in a series, it's necessary for the author to set the scene, introduce the principal characters and give some of their back story and this can often be to the detriment of the tale being told. Having to impart all this extra information as well as keeping the story going can often slow down the action, but this isn't the case here. This book grabbed my attention from the beginning of the prologue and Candace Robb tells the main characters' back stories in such a way that it blends seamlessly into the narrative and we learn their histories without it detracting from the ongoing storyline in any way.
I really liked Owen from the beginning. He's a man in his prime, very attractive, and a well described character. He is a man of the world, and I couldn't help but fall for his rakish charm, not to mention his leather eye patch! There is a piratical quality to him that is instantly appealing. He struck me as being a bit of a medieval Johnny Depp.
Lucie Wilton, too, is a well drawn character and the growing attraction between her and Owen is believable and doesn't detract from the mystery at all because Lucie is right there in the thick of it.
In fact, I totally bought into these two characters, so much so that as the evidence began to point towards Lucie's guilt, I was almost as horrified as Owen and just as keen to prove her innocent.
The secondary characters are also well-rounded. From the irascible Thoresby, and the very endearing Brother Wulfstan, to the straight laced, and rather slimey Archdeacon Anselm, these characters are all three dimensional and add colour and realism to the story. Candace Robb's knowledge of all things medieval adds a further element of realism. Although I don't know much about this particular period of history, it 'feels' right and Candace Robb blends the real and the fictional characters well. John Thoresby, for instance, is a documented Archbishop of York and in this book she has added flesh to his bones.
The majority of this story is set in York which is the perfect backdrop for any book set in the medieval period. There are sufficient buildings still standing in the York of today, especially round the Minster and in the Shambles, that it isn't much of a stretch for any reader who has visited the city to imagine those streets teaming with fourteenth century characters. To help further, the book has a map at the front detailing various streets and buildings in medieval York as well as various fictional locations mentioned in the story.
As for the mystery element, there are enough twists and turns and red herrings in the plot to keep you guessing until the end, but that may just be that I'm not cut out to be a detective.
I really enjoyed this book and, in fact, have gone on to read all the others in the series. From page one I was totally immersed in the story and the lives of the characters who people this book. I often find with American authors writing about England that they lack an in-depth knowledge of the history, people and events of England and can often misuse the English vernacular, which can throw me out of the story. This never happens, either with this book or the subsequent books in the series. Candace Robb really knows her subject and has obviously lived among us long enough to pick up our rhythms of speech.
If you love history and mystery, coupled with good characterisation, you'll thoroughly enjoy this book and the others in the series. I highly recommend it.
The Apothecary Rose is still in print, and is likely to be available at your local library or you can probably pick it up for mere pennies at a charity shop.
Published by Arrow
Other books in the series are:
1. The Apothecary Rose
2. The Lady Chapel
3. The Nun's Tale
4. The King's Bishop
5. The Riddle of St Leonard's
6. A Gift of Sanctuary
7. A Spy for the Redeemer
8. The Cross Legged Knight
9. The Guilt of Innocents
10. A Vigil of Spies