‘Order of Darkness Volumes I – III’ by Philippa Gregory (The Other Boleyn Girl) offers up plenty of historical action for a young adult audience.
From a writer best known for her popular historical novels featuring real-life figures, Order of Darkness volumes I-III by Philippa Gregory bring medieval adventure to a teen audience. Now compiled into a paperback containing the first three novels of the series, the tale follows a cast of her own creations as they venture through 15th century Europe – a place ripe with dangerous potential, where Christendom is threatened by the advance of the Ottoman Empire and the Holy Roman Church fears that the end of the world is imminent.
The first instalment, Changeling, begins the story of Luca Vero. A novice monk from Rome, whose sharp intellect and instinct to question finds him accused of heresy. Expelled from his monastery, Luca is recruited as a papal inquirer and despatched to investigate spiritual and mystical occurrences – anything which may be a sign of the impending End of Days.
Travelling with his only friend Frieze, the monastery’s charismatic kitchen boy, and under the watchful eye of Brother Peter, a reticent monk who acts as their clerk, their first task brings them into the life of the Lady of Lucretili. A young and recently orphaned noblewoman, Isolde has been cheated of her inheritance and found herself trapped in the role of Abbess at a convent, together with Ishraq – her capable Arabic childhood companion. Resolving a conspiracy at the abbey – a clever plot which kept us guessing – the four youngsters move on together with Brother Peter in tow. Their next stop sees them unravel the mystery of a werewolf which menaces a small village, and the girls prove their worth – setting the pattern for the adventures to come.
The second novel Stormbringers sees the travellers at a fishing port, dealing with a seven hundred strong pilgrimage of children led by a young goatherd who has all the hallmarks of sainthood. In the third, Fool’s Gold, they masquerade as a rich family in Venice, tasked with tracking down the source of an influx of gold coins.
Each of the three tales are cleverly constructed and deftly walked the line between the rational and the supernatural, allowing us to puzzle out the mystery alongside the heroes. All four of the young characters are well crafted and pleasingly diverse, with their strengths played upon as they are frequently paired in different combinations.
Given their ages and positions, there comes plenty of emotional content too, with forbidden attractions and social graces to be both adhered to and challenged – especially during the excesses of the carnival time in Venice where passions run high. Of the four though, our favourite is easily Frieze; the general factotum, horse-whisperer and down to earth anchor to the group who has an eye for the ladies and an easy charm.
Driven by Luca’s innate thirst for knowledge, combined with Ishraq’s education, there was plenty of opportunity for the author to drop some scientific detail among the historical colour; we learned how to surreptitiously pan for gold, considered what causes a tsunami and looked into both the properties of light and the process of alchemy as we journeyed with the group.
Across 850 pages, we were quickly drawn in and highly entertained by these tales, which satisfy individually, but also are building a background mystery tied to the greater historical events of the time. With a fourth adventure on the horizon for next year, we look forward to seeing if Isolde can reclaim her heritage and Luca will be reunited with his family – if they survive the interest of their Ottoman foes and the enemies closer to home, that is!