Its interesting to note that for all the raves and hoopla over that historically inaccurate, violence laden, God-awful piece of crap Pillars of the Earth that this trilogy, about a master stone-mason building a great cathedral (sound familiar?), was written years before the other. Hmmm.
The first book in the trilogy, The Heaven Tree, tells the story of master stonemason Harry Talvace as he is hired by Ralf Isambard to build him a great cathedral at Parfois along the Welsh Marches. Isambard also brings courtesan Benedetta along with him as mistress, although he is unaware that Benedetta bears a lifelong unrequited love for Harry. Harry makes a desperate choice to save a child from hanging that has dire consequences for himself, his wife and Benedetta, although Harry returns to his commitment to complete the cathedral despite the sentence of a traitor’s death hanging over him.
The Green Branch, the second book in the trilogy takes up the story of Master Harry’s son (also called Harry) who has been raised in Wales as a foster son to Prince Llewellyn. Harry is unknowingly drawn into the adulterous affair between Llewellyn’s wife Joan (also known as Joanna) and William de Braose, and as a result of the scandal Harry flees Llewellyn’s court and heads to Parfois to enact his revenge against Isambard for his father’s death, but fifteen year old Harry is no match for Isambard and is taken prisoner. Ralph refuses to ransom Harry back to his family, and eventually the hatred that first existed between the two sworn enemies develops into something very different and unexpected to both men.
In the final book, The Scarlet Seed, Harry continues to learn the masonry craft of his father whilst still being held prisoner by Isambard. Desperate to free Harry, Benedetta offers Isambard another hostage, one he cannot refuse, but a choice unacceptable to Benedetta’s servant John the Fletcher. John makes an attempt on Ralph’s life that takes a tragic turn, and as a consequence the jailer now becomes the prisoner in his own home. As the Marches explode into civil war, the Welsh storm the unassailable Parfois and the fates of Isambard, Madonna Benedetta and Master Harry are forever entwined through eternity.
While the start of The Heaven Tree may be a bit too slow paced for some readers, Pargeter’s beautiful prose and lyrical writing is one to sit back and slowly savor like a fine red wine or chocolate (or both!!) and I highly recommend this for any lover of medieval fiction. It’s not quite as perfect a read for me as Penman’s Here Be Dragons, but pretty darn close, and that final scene in the cathedral between Isambard, Benedetta and Master Harry (I’m not telling!) was nothing short of perfection. Five stars.