A Pact with Death by Dennis Hamley

Book 2 of The Long Journey of Joslin de Lay

Fourteenth century London. The “city” is small and squalid, overcrowded and busy, surrounded by walls built in Roman times. Outside are the villages of Hackney and Tottenham. Waste runs in the streets, murder is commonplace and into this place arrive French minstrel Joslin de Lay and his close friend Alys, both grieving after the death of Alys’ beloved Robin. Joslin is escorting Alys to the home of her guardian – master painter Randolf Waygoode – before he travels on to Wales. But no sooner do they arrive at Randolf’s house, when Joslin is threatened several times. When Randolf’s apprentices go missing, somehow it’s Joslin that is under suspicion and he sets out to find out what has happened. His search for the truth gives us a glimpse of life in medieval London. From the gravedigger to the local coroner, each has a part to play in the story.

But there is another thread in this tale, one that I suspect weaves through the entire series. Who – or rather what – is stalking Joslin? There are hints of strange encounters, pacts made with the Devil and promises of immortality. I admit to being concerned about reading book 2 of a 6-book series, without having read the first one. And I suspect that reading the books in sequence might make the wider series arc of the story more understandable, but book 2 is perfectly readable in its own right and I didn’t feel disadvantaged by not knowing what had gone before. There’s enough information fed into this story for it to make sense in its own right and be a complete stand-alone tale.

What I loved about this book was the richness of detail. The names of the streets, the journeys within the city and outside of it, the descriptions of the river and the depth of the lives of London’s inhabitants. The research is meticulous and brings the story alive. I felt like I was there in the city, with the sights, sounds and smells of a fourteenth century London, still in the grip of the plague. But this isn’t a story about the disease that wiped out so many people in medieval Britain and the plague is simply a part of everyday life.

This is a historical mystery for children/young adults. But the history is subtle, woven in so deep it’s not history at all – just reality. There’s a fantasy element for those who like that kind of thing, but not enough to spoil the story for those who don’t. Lots of  action and adventure story. A great read for children or adults.

Reviewed by Debbie Bennett

A Pact with Death is available in Kindle format

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