~by Veronica Black
Recently, I have started meeting up with a few coworkers over lunch for a monthly mystery readers gathering. One of the series that has been making the rounds is Veronica Black's Sister Joan novels, the first of which is A Vow of Silence. Veronica Black is actually the pen name of Maureen Peters (who also wrote under the names Catherine Darby, Elizabeth Law, Judith Rothman, and Sharon Whitby), a fairly prolific author who first began publishing in the late sixties. The first book in the Sister Joan series was released in 1990 with the eleventh and final volume, A Vow of Evil, being published in 2004. Black's Sister Joan novels are probably the most popular of the works written by Peters.
Sister Joan is a nun of the Order of the Daughters of Compassion (a fictional Order, although partially based in reality, created by Black), having taken her final vows only two years previously. Even though her vocation was later than most, she is now thirty-five, she is still quite lively, good-humored, and a bit impulsive. At the beginning of A Vow of Silence, Sister Joan is sent by her prioress to the Order's convent in Cornwall to fill the opening left when a young nun unexpectedly dies and to act as the schoolteacher for the local children. But all is not as it seems at the new covenant. The Mother Prioress wears pink nail polish, an enthusiastic and devoted novice has mysteriously left the Order, and some of the traditions and teachings followed are unorthodox at best and verge on being heretical at worst. It's up to Sister Joan to try and figure out what exactly is going on at her new home.
I wanted to like A Vow of Silence, I usually enjoy a bit of religion mixed in with my fiction when it is done intelligently (as it is here), but the book never quite captured me fully. One reason for this I think is due to its length--it is very difficult to fit in all the necessary background information needed when beginning a series in addition to the current mystery plot in such a short book. Sister Joan is a lovely and charming woman, and there is definitely more to her story than is hinted about. But, too much time was spent on these hints without really progressing the story or fully explaining her history, which is a pity. The writing itself seemed rather reserved or even formal, which is appropriate, but it comes across as being stilted in the long run and a wee bit awkward at times. The mystery part of the novel was a little strange since we don't even really know what the mystery actually is until it's mostly been solved; basically all that is know is that there may or may not be something strange going on a the Cornwall convent, and that that may or may not be a good or a bad thing.
I'm not sure if it was because I'm not Catholic, that the book was so short, or that I'm not shocked very easily, but I never really connected with A Vow of Silence which means I didn't really care much about the story. This is really quite a shame because Sister Joan is a very likeable character and the series has the potential to be quite charming. The book wasn't bad by any means, but it wasn't great either. If I didn't have so many books on my reading pile I might be tempted to give the next couple of books a try to see where the series goes, especially given how short they are. But ultimately, I probably won't be picking up A Vow of Chastity; while the series probably works for some people, I just don't think this one is for me.