A Dreadful Penance by Jason Vail


Well, I have to say I got to the end of this and I am still having trouble finding out what the dreadful penance was that caused the author to title this book. Still...

I like Jason Vail. I am going to cautiously compare him to the peerless Ellis Peters. The reason for this is that I like the simplicity of his narrative, the tidiness of his action and plot, the effectiveness of the mystery. In much the same way I like the departed Ms Peters' Cadfael novels. This is not to say I think Sir Stephen Attebrooke and his trusty sidekick Gilbert Gristwoode should make it onto the small screen played by the inestimable Derek Jacobi. There is also the matter that Mr Vail seriously needs an editor to steer him. In fact I'd go so far as to venture this novel was written before the other two; or at least drafted. It has a "newness" about it that isn't quite as polished as the previous books.

The story concerns a trip by Stephen to a run-down priory at Clun on the Welsh border to find out who has murdered the sub-cellarer, William. In addition he's tasked with having Gilbert find out what Prince Llywelyn is up to (something that proves irrelevant given the climatic fires in the novel). En route to the Priory he comes across a bandit raid on innocent travellers and is forced into a confrontation with the bullying lord of the town - Sir Percival FitzAllan. This, in turn, leads him to investigate the characters of Hugh, Oswic, Llwyn, Odo, Brin, and Bran. Suffice it to say he manages to work out the truth without too many vicissitudes, makes a couple of friends and stomps off back home having solved a mystery, found some treasure and watched a town burn to a charred crisp.

Back on the theme on an editor... and with regard to the historical and literary aspects. There are a fair few faults. For example, Stephen's sarcastic reference to "Estonia" is far too tenuous. I seriously doubt he would have even known of the place given its subjection to Denmark from 1227; the phrase "stand and deliver" is used which didn't occur till at least the time of Shakespeare (16th century); the phrase "send someone off on a lark" originates in the eighteenth century; use of "smallpox" - a word not used until the fifteenth century; "smart as a whip" - a twentieth century phrase! Then there was the ambiguous "wrath guard" - I still have no idea what Vail is trying to allude to.
The list goes on. There is the lack of capitalisation for proper nouns - "prior" and "chapter" being the main culprits and capitalisation where there should be none ("It" instead of "it"). Several typos appear including "unstung" (for "unslung"), "distance" (for "distant"), "force" (for "forced"), "where" (for "were"). A lot more exist and I'm not going to to list them all.

These editing mistakes are rather irritating. The former smack of poor research... this stuff is all easily found on the web... the latter of zero proofreading. It doesn't take much to eradicate them and Vail needs to do this.

Back to the novel... by the end there has been a change in Stephen's character from the deputy coroner from the first two novels. He's a harder man, more prone to action than musing... and that's not a bad shift. As he reflects: "You can't solve murders by sitting in the grass."

Despite the lack of editing... as the great Charles Dickens had Oliver say: "I'd like some more."

Review by

1 positive reader review(s) for A Dreadful Penance

All reviews for Jason Vail's A Stephen Attebrook Mystery series

The Wayward Apprentice
A Stephen Attebrook Mystery #1

Stephen Attebrook, a crippled knight facing poverty and ruin, seems condemned to a quiet life when he takes a position as deputy coroner in the small town of Ludlow.  [...]

Baynard's List
A Stephen Attebrook Mystery #2

October 1262 should have been a quiet month, that melancholy time following the death of summer dedicated to the chores of readying Ludlow for the onset of winter and the h [...]

A Dreadful Penance
A Stephen Attebrook Mystery #3

November 1262 is an unlikely season for war. But war nonetheless is coming to the March, the wild borderland between England and Wales. Not the war that most fear between t [...]

The Girl in the Ice
A Stephen Attebrook Mystery #4

December 1262 is one of the harshest in living memory. A series of terrible blizzards strikes England, falling with particular heaviness on the March, the blood-soaked bord [...]

St Milburga's Bones
A Stephen Attebrook Mystery #5

War has come again to the March of England and Wales. An army under Prince Edward is massing at Ludlow to subdue the Welsh after their invasion of the autumn of 1262, which [...]

The Outlaws
A Stephen Attebrook Mystery Prequel

Eustace FitzWalter, Giselle de Hafton, and Robert Attebrook could not be more different. Eustace is the bastard son of an earl, Giselle the sheltered daughter of a dotting [...]


A Dreadful Penance reader reviews

from UK

I love reading the Stephen Attebrooke novels; they are compulsive reading and the characters intriguing and they come alive in the writing. I do, however, wish that Jason researched his use of language better and also changed publisher. The amount of mistakes throughout the book is unforgivable for any publisher and it can only enhance the reputation of the writer to have fewer errors in the production of a novel.

8/10 from 2 reviews

Write a reader review

Your rating out of 10

Books you may also enjoy

Death in St James's Park

by Susanna Gregory

Five years after Charles II's triumphant return to London there is growing mistrust of his extravagant court and of corruption among his officials - and when a cart lad [...]

Series: The Exploits of Thomas Chaloner: Book 8
Published: 2013

Score: 100

Our rating: 10.0 | 0 positive reader reviews


Mystery in the Minster

by Susanna Gregory

In 1358 the fledging college of Michaelhouse in Cambridge is in need of extra funds. A legacy from the Archbishop of York of a parish close to that city promises a welcome [...]

Series: The Chronicles of Matthew Bartholomew #17
Published: 2011

Score: 95

Our rating: 9.5 | 0 positive reader reviews


The Luminaries

by Eleanor Catton

It is 1866, and Walter Moody has come to make his fortune upon the New Zealand goldfields. On arrival, he stumbles across a tense gathering of twelve local men, who have me [...]

Series: NA
Published: 2013

Score: 95

Our rating: 9.5 | 0 positive reader reviews


Murder on High Holborn

by Susanna Gregory

In 1665 England is facing war with the Dutch and the capital is awash with rumours of conspiracy and sedition. These are more frenetic than normal because of the recent sin [...]

Series: The Exploits of Thomas Chaloner: Book 9
Published: 2014

Score: 95

Our rating: 9.5 | 0 positive reader reviews