The Novice’s Tale, Oxford Medieval Mystery #2

by Dee


The Novice’s Tale – Oxford Medieval Mystery #2

The Novice’s Tale is the second instalment in Oxford Murder Mystery series by Ann Swinfen. By the title, I pretty much guess that my suspicion about something from the first book will be confirmed. I refrain from reading other reviews prior to reading this one because I’m afraid that my suspicion will be prematurely confirmed. Whatever that means, Dee. 

Caution: this review has spoilers from the first book! I warned you.

Featured image by: unknown source


The Novice’s Tale would seem to feature Godstow Abbey in excess. Reminding you all (and me), Godstow Abbey was built in 1133 after the land was given to Edith/Ediva de Launceline by John of St John. The abbey housed the Benedictine nuns and was discontinued under the Dissolution Act 1539. Its ruins can still be viewed and visited (with COVID restrictions, I presume?) today via Oxford by bus or trains.

The Novice’s Tale continues the story of Nicholas and his circle of family and friends. Those who read the first book will recognise Emma Thorgold, a.k.a. Sister Benedicta and her background story. But those who doesn’t… Well, Emma is a cousin of William Farringdon, the Oxford student murdered in the first book. Emma was sent to Godstow by her stepfather, whom I think has a devious plan with her inheritance. The first book emphasised many times that Emma did not want to commit a life as a nun.

Several secondary characters from the first book are making appearance in this one, claiming a more steady parts in the storyline. I’m sure I will be reading more about Maud Farringdon, Juliana, Philip Olney, and hopefully Sir Anthony Thorgold.


  1. Nicholas Elyot – the patriarch of the family, a bookseller, an Oxford dropout.
  2. Margaret Makepeace (neé Elyot) – Nicholas’ sister. 
  3. Alysoun Elyot – Nicholas daughter
  4. Rafe Elyot – Alysoun’s younger brother
  5. Jordan Brynkilsworth – Nicholas’ best friend, Warden of Hart Hall, Oxford University
  6. Maud Farringdon – mother of the late William Farringdon
  7. Juliana Farringdon – younger sister of Farringdon
  8. Emma Thorgold – Maud’s niece, Wililam & Juliana’s cousin
  9. Roger Pigot – an illuminator & a scribe in Nicholas’ bookshop
  10. Walter Blunt – Nicholas’ assistant in the bookshop

Beginning of The Novice’s Tale

As with the first book, Ann Swinfen did not fancy setting the murders at the beginning of the book. The first chapter spends time on the aftermath of William’s death. The fate of his family members wasn’t blessed either, as they are being kicked out of their cottage. Juliana Farringdon wrote a letter to Nicholas in the hope that he would be able to help them. Passing the news to Jordain, Nicholas then subtly insisted to the higher-ups of Merton College to take care of William’s family. After all, it was their faculty member who was the brain behind William’s death.

Being the nice guy he is, Jordain seemed to move heaven and earth, bringing the Farringdons to Oxford after Nicholas successfully secured a new place for them. The College is willing to give the Farringdons a rent-free place to live because I think they ‘feel responsible for the unfortunate event that befell William under their care’. You know, standard university-style excuse. Also, of course, the university has a ‘spare’ of the most hideous-looking house to be rented ‘free’. Hmm… I’ve known this game before.

Granted, the house was the most hideous that the university could give to the Farringdons, but the thoughtful gesture and effort done by the Elyot bunch and Jordain were so touching. Alysoun and Margaret even made flowery garlands to make sure they adorned the house when the Farringdons arrived. It’s the little things that you do to your friends that counts as kindness—and this scene warmed my heart, nearly brought tears to my eyes. I lied. I cried, of course.

But to my dismay, there wasn’t any murder in The Novice’s Tale. So what’s the problem then?

The Novice’s Adventure

Emma hated having been admitted to Godstow Abbey and the manner in which she was put in there. She felt lucky that she could distract herself with creating books of hours, which caught Nicholas’ attention.

Having been punished for what was viewed as her disobedience, Emma started to plan an escape from Godstow Abbey. At the other end of the story, Nicholas approached the Abbess and placed a request for another book of hours supposed to be made by Emma. But this type of problem has an obvious solution—at least from my point of view: escape first and then approach the bookseller guy who placed the order. Problem solved, Emma… Now get your pretty arse out of there.

A problem actually arises when Emma carried on with her plan and got lost. Thinking she had no time to waste, she escaped even though Nicholas promised to come back with a lawyer who might actually be able to help her build a case against her stepfather.

The chapters following her escape gave me quite a lot of anxiety. Especially when Jocosa (her pet dog) somehow got away as they were crossing the river. I thought Jocosa was gone and done. Parts of a story that involve any potential unfortunate fate of animals (read: pets) are not my cup of tea, really. I keep turning the pages on these chapters in The Novice’s Tale because I want to know if Emma and Jocosa are safe because, of course, the Abbess sent news to Emma’s stepfather that she had taken off. And he came to Godstow with a fury.

Another scene that made my blood boils was when Alysoun cried because someone had hacked Rowan (the dog) with a pottery vessel, injuring her abdomen. Again, WHY? Rowan is okay, though. She recovered because, fortunately, the wound isn’t too deep and didn’t injure her organs.


As a second instalment, I liked how The Novice’s Tale was written. The warmth and carefulness of Ann Swinfen can be traced anywhere on the pages. It is a light read, though, because there is no murder. But I am not disappointed. The whole point of the book isn’t only about blood, gore, and murder.

The End of Novice’s Tale?

I perceive this book as a fairy tale love story that everyone wants to have. I would want to have a man moving mountains and shifting rivers to get to where I am. Who wouldn’t, right? My suspicions (and Jordain’s) of the chemistry between Nicholas and Emma were further confirmed throughout the story. It’s terribly funny how Nicholas wanted to conceal his own feelings on behalf of politeness but eventually reveal it for the whole world to see. I mean, if Sherriff Walden can see it, so can anybody else.

Even though I viewed this as a love story, it’s written relatively clean and primly. There were no raunchy scenes involved, but I am somewhat sympathetic and empathetic to what goes on in Nicholas and Emma’s minds. I’d say this is a book that is safe reading for younger audiences in the teenage range.

Was the problem solved? Somewhat. Sit Anthony Thorgold, Emma’s grandfather, came into the picture to help solve it. Although, I feel that the solution provided at the end is somewhat temporary and can be seen as an ongoing situation. Nevertheless, I have hope that the ending of The Novice’s Tale will set up the next adventure of Nicholas in Oxford—preferably one with murder, please…

As a second instalment, I liked how The Novice’s Tale was written. The warmth and carefulness of Ann Swinfen can be traced anywhere on the pages. It is a light read, though, because there is no murder. But I am not disappointed. The whole point of the book isn’t only about blood, gore, and murder.

The Novice’s Tale, for me, presented a story about friendship, kinship, and love. I am moved by how the friendship between Nicholas and Philip bloomed. They were at best courteous with each other in the first book, plus Philip has a secret that if Nicholas chooses to expose, it will destroy him. I thought this secret can be or might be used as final ammunition in future disagreements. But no, their dynamics changed, and I loved it. Such a fairy tale story.

I wonder which written sources Ann Swinfen read because her description of the now-ruined Godstow Abbey was super meticulous. I think I am just going to assume that she drew that from her imagination because I have searched the world-web over but didn’t find a satisfactory source or sources. Perhaps I didn’t look hard enough? I would also like to think that she may have extrapolated what’s known of Godstow Abbey with other known plans of English 12th century nunneries. Still, a fantastic work. I can’t wait to read book #3.

Words I Learnt

  • precentrix: A female precentor or a cleric who directs the choral services in a cathedral (Collins Dictionary)
  • weals: a red, swollen mark left on flesh by a blow or pressure.   
  • postulant: a candidate, especially one seeking admission into a religious order.
  • goad: provoke or annoy (someone) so as to stimulate some action or reaction.
  • garrulous: excessively talkative, especially on trivial matters.
  • churl: an impolite and mean-spirited person. (archaic) a person of low birth; a peasant.
  • garret: a room or unfinished part of a house just under the roof. (Merriam Webster)
  • stooking: arrange in stooks (bales of hay).
  • assuage: make (an unpleasant feeling) less intense.; satisfy (an appetite or desire).
  • sumpter: (archaic) a pack animal.
  • tallow: a rendered form of beef or mutton fat, primarily made up of triglycerides. It is solid at room temperature. Unlike suet, tallow can be stored for extended periods without the need for refrigeration to prevent decomposition, provided it is kept in an airtight container to prevent oxidation. (Wikipedia)
  • compunction: a feeling of guilt or moral scruple that prevents or follows the doing of something bad.
  • assay: (archaic) attempt.
  • vittles: (archaic) food or provisions.
  • loquacious: tending to talk a great deal; talkative.
  • febrifuge: a medicine used to reduce fever.
  • truckle: a small barrel-shaped cheese, especially Cheddar. Or submit or behave obsequiously.

Read also

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Tjandoe Radjoet uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept Read More