Our Great Abbess blends historical fiction and religious horror to tell a compelling tale of cloistered nuns in a secluded mountain abbey, under siege by starvation, disease, marauders, and internal sabotage.
The young nuns of St. Agnes Convent face starvation, and there is no money in the treasury because the former prioress went mad and gave it all away. (Mad Reverend Mother Oxtierna has been banished to the abbey’s dungeon.) The Governing Mothers reach out to Baron Jack for help, but he denies them. A plague has wiped out much of the population of Europe, and war with a neighboring kingdom is imminent. The Baron can’t spare any resources for the Sisters unless he gets something in return: he wants one of the young nuns to serve as a sex slave for his army.
Shocked and disgusted the Mothers reject the Baron’s offer. But things go from bad to worse. The villagers think the woods surrounding the abbey are haunted by vengeful spirits and refuse to help. Friars from a brother are friendly, but also destitute. Scouting parties sent out for help have never returned.
Prioress-by-default Tabitha musters the courage to accept the Baron’s offer. She will sacrifice herself to the Baron’s savages so that the rest of the nuns can survive. But the Baron’s offer has changed. Now he wants all the nuns in the Abby as sex slaves, though Tabitha can spare one girl.
Our Great Abbess traverses some dark waters and doesn’t pull punches. Nightly rapes by masked marauders are just the beginning of the horrors the sisters of St. Agnes Convent must endure. But the novel ultimately empowers women rather than objectifies them.
Abbess is a book filled with powerful women who rise up no matter how desperate the situation or unrightous the indignity. Tabitha kicks ass, outwitting her male suppressors to keep the Abbey going at all cost.
“As Tabitha saw it, the convent was a transition point between the world and heaven.”
Tabitha is joined by a cast of equally strong and memorable women. Wicked and mad Oxtierna. The naïve but not-so-innocent Marta. Suspicious and conniving Isadore. Our Great Abbess is a big, sprawling novel, but the pacing is strong throughout, buoyed by a driving narrative, interesting sub-plots, and beautiful language.
The male supporting cast gets some of the books best lines, like these from a maudlin Baron Jack:
“It is inevitable. Life is just our fattening ourselves for the dirt maw, standing precariously on its lip, then it’s in we go.”
And Tabitha’s faithful servant Clovis contemplates the nature of suffering and God’s plan for each of us.
“There are no ‘supposed to be’s.’ God gives us what we are, and changes his mind on occasion, and we’re left to deal with the reality of it.”
Our Great Abbess reads as if John Jakes penned a round robin novel with George R.R. Martin, Clive Barker and Umberto Eco. The novel bristles with historical intrigue, authentic dialogue, genuine suspense and no-holds-barred horrors.