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It is 1453: The Church reigns supreme in Europe, but there are disturbing signs that the Muslims in the East are getting stronger and suspicions that the End of Days may be approaching. Novice priest Luca Vero, aged seventeen, joins a secret church order that battles evil by investigating mysteries—spiritual mysteries. At the same time, recently orphaned Lady Isolde of Lucretili, also seventeen, finds herself banished to the local nunnery. Isolde and her Moorish servant and best friend, Ishraq, immediately suspect that something is not right at the Abbey: nuns are fainting in chapel, seeing visions, sleepwalking, even finding bloody stigmata on their palms. Is it the work of the devil? Her worst fears seem confirmed when the Abbey receives a visitor: investigator Luca Vero, accompanied by his servant, Freize, and a dour clerk, Brother Peter. What dark force is terrifying the nuns and causing them to act this way? Can Luca and Isolde uncover the true source of the problem?
1. In the first chapter, we learn that Luca’s monastery has accused of him of heresy. What is heresy, and why is it so harshly punished by the Church?
2. Why has Luca, who loves numbers and calculations, never heard of the numeral zero? Why is he so excited when he learns about it?
3. Isolde’s brother tells her that her father’s will left her two options: to marry the drunken and brutish Prince Roberto, or to renounce her wealth and live her entire life as a nun, with no husband or family. Why does Isolde choose the nunnery? Which option would you choose? Why?
4. How does the relationship between Luca and Freize change over the course of the book?
5. Luca and Isolde both have some of the qualities a monk or nun should possess, but lack others. What do you think were the most important requirements for the religious life? What would you do if you found yourself poorly suited for the career your parents chose for you, or the one you planned to pursue?
6. How do various characters—Isolde, the Lady Almoner, Freize, and others—perceive Ishraq? In what ways is she different from others in her society? How do people today react to those they perceive as different from themselves?
7. What are some of the explanations that the nuns, the villagers, and others offer for the strange goings-on at the nunnery, and for the wild creature they capture? How do people today seek to explain phenomena they cannot understand?
8. How does the Lady Almoner explain the presence of gold in the nunnery’s storeroom loft to Luca and Freize? What is the true explanation?
9. Why do Luca, Freize, and the Lady Almoner think that Isolde and Ishraq are holding a Satanic mass using the body of Sister Reeve? What are they actually doing? Why does no one believe their explanation?
10. We never learn how Isolde and Ishraq escaped the Abbey’s gatehouse cellar. How do you think they escaped? Why do you think Freize claimed that he released them?
11. What are the differences between the way that Isolde’s father raised her and the education he provided for Ishraq? Why were the two trained differently? Whose knowledge and skills do you think are more useful? Whose position in society would you prefer to occupy?
12. The villagers think that Sara Fairley’s son Stefan was taken by a werewolf; Brother Peter thinks that Sara had a hand in his disappearance. What actually happened?
13. Together, Freize and Ishraq save the captured werewolf from execution. Why? How?
Guide written by Susie Steinbach, Professor of History, Hamline University, College of Liberal Arts.
This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes.
Philippa Gregory is the author of many bestselling novels, including The Other Boleyn Girl, and is a recognized authority on women’s history. Her Cousins’ War novels are the basis for the critically acclaimed STARZ miniseries The White Queen. Her most recent novel is Three Sisters, Three Queens. She graduated from the University of Sussex and received a PhD from the University of Edinburgh, where she is a Regent. She holds two honorary degrees from Teesside University and the University of Sussex. She is a fellow of the Universities of Sussex and Cardiff and was awarded the 2016 Harrogate Festival Award for Contribution to Historical Fiction. She welcomes visitors to her website, PhilippaGregory.com.