It’s immediately clear that Vesper Stamper’s second novel, with its carefully crafted prose and artfully illustrated pages, could hardly have been rushed out in response to current events. Nevertheless, A Cloud of Outrageous Blue feels urgently timely—despite the fact that it’s set in the 15th century.
After what happened to her and her family, Edyth isn’t sure she believes in God. She’s certainly not devout, but after a series of violent and tragic events robs her of nearly her entire family and her sense of security, she finds herself headed to a priory. There she will serve as a conversa, a laborer working alongside the young women who are training to become nuns.
At the priory, Edyth finds trusted friends and more than one enemy, including the Sub-Prioress, Agnes, who takes an instant dislike to her. But Edyth, a talented artist, is delighted to be assigned to work in the priory’s scriptorium, where she can help mix the pigments the scribes use to create their beautiful manuscripts. Edyth also has a hidden gift: She has strange visions and is physically affected by colors. She can see, taste and smell them, and sometimes their power and intensity overwhelm her. Edyth is also simultaneously pleased and confused when Mason, the young man with whom she had begun a relationship back in their village, arrives at the priory to work on a building project. Will pursuing a romance with Mason jeopardize Edyth’s aspirations?
Edyth’s personal struggles become even more fraught when whispers of a mysterious illness appear to be more than rumors. In the face of the threat this illness poses, some within the priory walls will rise to the occasion, while others will become twisted by fear—and many will die.
Set during the Great Plague of 1349, A Cloud of Outrageous Blue is both a riveting work of historical fiction and an elegantly understated fantasy, as Edyth’s visions can seem prophetic. Edyth’s story is interspersed with gorgeously composed, two-page spreads of Stamper’s artwork, which bring Edyth’s daily routines as well as more fantastical subjects to life in bold lines and hues. The story’s atmosphere of fear and paranoia juxtaposed against acts that demonstrate extraordinary generosity of spirit during a plague cannot help but have special resonance for readers now. Although the book’s ending may cause some polarization, the impression that will linger in the minds of those who read this expansive, beautifully crafted novel is the triumph of empathy above all.