Book 5 in Catholic novelist Antony Barone Kolenc’s Harwood Mysteries series, Murder at Penwood Manor, is one of those stories that will keep your teen reading late into the night. Xan, an orphaned teen who was first taken in by monks and then came to live with an uncle in a distant town, seeks to exonerate a crusader who has returned from the Holy Land and is now accused of the murder of a romantic rival. Xan is accompanied in his quest to save Laurence the crusader by two young women, one in formation at a local abbey and another who appears to be his love interest.
As I read this story, I was frequently reminded of this line from the Gospel of John:
“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13)
Xan, Lucy, and Christina all have a lot to lose by standing up for Laurence in front of the sheriff and the townsfolk, all of whom are ready to see him put to death. Lucy even risks her religious vocation by disobeying her superiors and leaving the monastery to help solve the mystery behind the murder that opens the story. I won’t give spoilers, but I will say there’s a cliffhanger that leaves me extremely eager for the next novel in the series!
Parents and teachers will appreciate the two-page readers guide, “How to read historical fiction,” at the front of the book, and the author has also provided a map of Xan’s world, a glossary of religious and historical terms, and an author’s historical note that explains Church and feudal practices of that time and place. These bonus materials have been included with each book in the series, and are informative and useful without being condescending.
Murder at Penwood Manor is best enjoyed as part of a series, but Kolenc skillfully provides enough background information that a reader new to the series can jump in anywhere.
As with many series that begin with characters who are 10 or 11 years of age, the later books in the Harwood Mysteries seem more geared toward younger teen readers than middle-grade. I’d recommend this book (and book 4) for readers 12 and up; the first three books in the series are fine for middle-grade readers and up.
Want to catch up on the other books in the series?
The virtue of integrity is central to Shadow in the Dark, as Xan and his friends discover which of the people around them are who they say they are—and who can be trusted. In this story, Xan is taken in at a monastery after his village is burned down and his parents killed; Xan has little memory of the tragedy and does not know who he is. This mystery story provides a fascinating glimpse inside the feudal world and the monastic life during the Middle Ages.
The Haunted Cathedral, Book 2, contains fictional characters and events set in a historical place and time. Lincoln Castle and Lincoln Cathedral, both of which figure in the story, were constructed about a century before the story takes place—and parts of these buildings still stand today. And you’ll find no spoilers here, but a significant event in the story was actually recorded in history! When Xan is forced to travel to the city of Lincoln with Carlo, who was involved in Xan’s parents’ death, he faces multiple obstacles that challenge him to forgive—and he learns firsthand the consequences for himself and others when he withholds forgiveness.
In The Fire of Eden, an accident causes John, who’s been Xan’s nemesis in the monastery for quite some time, to lose his sight. Angry at his sudden dependence on those around him, John is more cruel than ever, but Xan is forced to cooperate with him as they seek to solve the mystery of a missing precious ruby belonging to a young monk who’s about to be ordained to the priesthood. Along the way, they encounter dishonest monks, traitorous guards, and a frightening magician who lives in the woods.
In The Merchant’s Curse, Xan and his companions progress through their teen years, the challenges they face—both in their faith and in their struggle to protect themselves and those they love from the very real threats they experience—have ever-higher stakes. In this story, Xan’s uncle William, who has provided him with both meaningful work and shelter, comes under threat when his business partner becomes deathly ill. His partner’s nephew, Nigel, blames the illness on a curse from a woman reputed to be a witch, but evil also seems to be lurking around William’s shop in the form of a group of thugs, and Nigel furthers the danger by befriending an enemy of the king.
Copyright 2023 Barb Szyszkiewicz
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