Mara, Brehon of the West Ireland Burren, has been appointed by King Turlough OBrien to be judge and lawgiver over his kingdom. She is the only woman in the country to hold this post of high honor; she also runs a law school with, at present, seven young male scholars. On the first eve of May, during the great May Day festival, her assistant Coman is murdered, and no matter her dislike of him, it is up to her to find and judge the culprit.
The storys character is inspired by early Irish, or Brehon, laws which include some judgment texts and case notes signed by a female judge. At the start of each chapter there are fascinating fragments from Brehon law. Most deal with the honors and responsibilities accorded to people according to their rank in society, and the types of punishment that would follow any crime against them.
The contrast between the English and Brehon laws, and the Roman and Celtic church, is made more than once. The Irish practices are each shown to be more merciful, and more favorable toward women. Mara, as a professional women, is accorded considerable merit; even her divorce, instigated by her, although shocking, is forgiven. Noted, however, is that despite all the careful provision in the law texts for female poets, physicians, woodwrights and blacksmiths, it was generally held in Ireland that women were inferior to men.
The power struggles and inter-twined marriages and alliances between the principal clans are detailed. Fears that the British, now under the rule of a young Henry the Eight, might expand west from their area of control around Dublin, play a part. Anglo-Norman Galway, mentioned as the third most important port, after Bristol and London, is nicely described, as is the barren and evocative Burren landscape.
First of three books in the Mara, the Brehon judge, series.