Set during a sweltering August in 1645, The Harlot's Tale returns to the dirty, tumultuous city of York and midwife Bridget Hodgson and her friends. Taking place a year after the first novel, The Midwife's Tale, this novel is a lovely reunion for those familiar with Bridget and a fabulous standalone for those new to her.
For me, the immediate appeal of this book is the unique setting: York following the English Civil War. Now that the city has been claimed by Parliamentary forces, York has been invaded by new hostile: 'godly' and zealous Puritan preachers, eager to transform York into a bastion of good. For midwife Bridget, her assistant Martha, and her nephew Will, the fiery fervor isn't particularly welcome, not with an unseasonable summer making everyone edgy and impatient.
A particularly vehement minister, Hezekiah Ward, has gained prominence and attention in York for preaching against 'harlots' but his sermons seem to be taken literally when young women begin to die in particularly gruesome ways. Bridget becomes embroiled in the investigation to find the killer and draws the unwelcome attention of Ward and his family, many city fathers, and others as she tries to prevent another murder.
As with Thomas' previous novel, this book is rich in atmospheric detail -- sweltering 17th century York is not my kind of vacation, I'll say! -- and peppered with a wonderful, appealing cast of characters. Bridget Hodgson remains a favorite heroine: she feels authentic and real, very much of her era but filled with the kind of independent spunk I like. (Based on a real woman, Thomas' website details the historical Bridget and her world, and it's a fascinating rabbit hole!)
Unlike the previous book, this one has more of a murder mystery/procedural feel. The shockingly gruesome crimes boggled Bridget and the city, and escalated the tension within York. The murders aren't, however, just a series of horrifying events; in Thomas' hands, they force Bridget and her friends to wrestle with the lofty ideas of punishment and sin, the moral concessions made in every day life, and the values they wish their city (and family and friends) embody and live. The very real, human response to the crimes kept me reading when I might normally have put the book aside (I'm not suuuuuuper wild about murder-y mysteries) and once more, Bridget's behavior and responses kept me engaged in the story. I'll go anywhere with her!
Readers need not be familiar with The Midwife's Tale to enjoy this novel; Thomas recaps the events from the first book easily, and while the relationships between the characters builds from that book, a new reader won't feel lost or left out. For those who enjoy unusual settings for their murder mysteries, consider adding this book to your TBR; anyone interested in midwives will absolutely want to pick this and the previous book up.