Infinite Jesters

Lark’s Lament
Alan Gordon
2008, St Martin’s/Minotaur

Lark’s Lament is the 7th or 8th book in Gordon’s Fool’s Guild series. These historical novels, set in the late 12th and early 13th centuries, follow the professional jesters Theo and Claudia on their adventures in various medieval cities and courts.

Theo, who used the name Feste, is the “professional” of the pair, while his wife, who goes by Claudia, was once a duchess. Really. Her birth name is Viola and she was married to the Duke of Orsino. When her husband was murdered, it took the help of a wandering fool to solve it. These names may seem familiar to Shakespeare fans, and with good reason. (The first book in the series is called Thirteenth Night.)

Many years have passed since those initial events took place, and now Theo and Claudia have a toddler daughter of their own as well as a young apprentice named Helga.

Theo’s peregrinations around Europe are not as random as they might seem. The Fool’s Guild is dedicated to the preservation of jesters and the occasional nudging of events, to keep governments running smoothly, no matter how strange those governments are. Fools carry messages and share information, not only with other guild members (who share a secret sign of recognition) but from court to court as well.

In Lament, Theo has been charged with persuading a prominent abbot, formerly a troubadour of renown, to intercede with Pope Innocent III, who has begun attacking the Fool’s Guild. Theo and Abbot Folquet meet once, but before Theo can bring him around, a murder interrupts. Folquet insists that Theo solve the murder before he will agree to help them with the Pope.

The story moves to Marseilles and Montpellier, and back to the abbey. Theo and Claudia soon discover that the murder was personal, that it is aimed like a quarrel from a crossbow at Folquet, and that it involves the mysterious death of an aristocratic lady nicknamed the Lark for her beautiful voice.

The book is filled with acrobatic action sequences and clever word-play. Traditionally, jesters could speak the truth to anyone in power without fear of retaliation, much like, unless recently at least, late night TV talk show hosts. Gordon clearly shows us that this “immunity” is more of a convention than a magical shield. Fools live lives of danger. The scenes in the courts, whether they are Claudia’s private conversations with Countess Marie, or the family’s public performances at banquets, are funny and fraught with risk, making for a suspenseful read.

After the previous book, Death in the Venetian Quarter, which was set in Byzantium, Lament seems remarkably linear, so much so that some readers will see the shape of the mystery and even identify the villain well ahead of our clever heroes. Gordon also dumps the reader out of the wagon at regular intervals with his first-person point of view shifts. They tend to come at chapter breaks, but it is not always clear whose POV we’re in, especially since Claudia’s authorial voice sounds very much like Theo’s.

But how can you not love a book that has an exchange like this with a threshold guardian of a city with sturdy gates but no walls?

“‘. . . Hey, now that there’s more than one fool in town, maybe you could form your own guild.’
‘There’s an idea,’ said Theo, smiling at me. ‘What do you think, wife?’
‘Not a good idea at all,’ I said firmly.
‘Why not?’ asked Reynaud, disappointed at my quick dismissal of his plan.
‘Because if there was a Fools’ Guild, then we would have to take a turn guarding the gates,’ I said. ‘You wouldn’t want your city to be guarded by fools, would you?’ (AG, p 120)”

Followed moments later by:

“He walked over and swung [the gates] open easily. Theo flicked the reins and Zeus pulled us though.
‘No lock on the gates,’ Theo noted.
‘What would be the purpose?’ asked Reynaud. ‘People can just go around them.’ (AG, 120)”

Alan Gordon is, or was, a legal aid lawyer in New York. It seems clear to me that, in his heart, he sees his legal aid comrades in the same light as his characters. The fools, with their motley and painted faces, don’t have gold, military might, or political power, either spiritual or temporal. They have only their wit, their wits, a sense of solidarity and of the absurd, as they face the powerful in their own courts. That pun is intended. Sometimes, through their curiosity and courage, they solve the mystery. Sometimes they speak truth to power, and power actually listens.

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