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The Clerkenwell Tales    by Peter Ackroyd order for
Clerkenwell Tales
by Peter Ackroyd
Order:  USA  Can
Anchor, 2005 (2003)
Hardcover, Paperback, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by Tim Davis

Peter Ackroyd, bestselling author of London: The Biography and Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination (as well as dozens of other fiction and nonfiction titles) has recently published an absolutely wonderful new book, The Clerkenwell Tales.

This mind-boggling mixture of fact and fiction uses Chaucer's Canterbury Tales as the foundational framework for an intellectual story of political and religious intrigues in medieval fourteenth-century England. Using many of Chaucer's pilgrims as his characters for this fascinating adventure, with quite a few others thrown in to make it all even more interesting, Ackroyd cleverly creates a thoroughly riveting story. Readers will become reacquainted with Chaucer's wonderful pilgrims. The Miller is there. So is the Wife of Bath. And in addition to the Prioress, the Pardoner, and the Nun's Priest, readers will encounter dozens of Chaucer's (and Ackroyd's) fully realized characters in new and very surprising situations.

As we are introduced to each character in his or her own chapter (twenty-three, in all), we gradually learn that conspiracies of unimaginable complexity and profound implications abound in England. Opponents and supporters of the monarch (King Richard II), the exiled Henry Bolingbroke, the Church, and other secular as well as non-secular interests are secretly moving through the darkly dangerous medieval streets of London. Strange alliances are embroiled against each other in a number of clandestine, mysterious conflicts. They hope to wrest power from each other and assert themselves and their causes as powers throughout England.

Full of wonderful imagery - pungent, disturbing, and staggering in its scope and detail - The Clerkenwell Tales is a suspense-filled tale beautifully enriched with an amazing plot and provocative themes. Paradoxically, while very entertaining and informative, it is also rather demanding at times because of the profusion of cultural and historical details, and readers - if at all like me - will constantly (albeit enjoyably) get distracted by the urgent need to seek out explanations for those arcane details from other research sources.

Just as readers, upon first encountering Chaucer, were most certainly entertained and informed by his representation of medieval England, readers now - once they have read The Clerkenwell Tales - will have a new perspective, and will never again think of Chaucer or pre-Renaissance England in quite the same way. This book is history with a wonderful twist. It is deliciously unforgettable.

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