"An outstanding historical mystery. Well-researched, well-plotted, well-paced and above all well written." – Mike Ripley
Ariana Franklin combines the best of modern forensic thrillers with the drama of historical fiction in the enthralling second novel in the Mistress of the Art of Death series, featuring medieval heroine Adelia Aguilar.
Rosamund Clifford, the mistress of King Henry II, has died an agonizing death by poison-and the king's estranged queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, is the prime suspect. Henry suspects that Rosamund's murder is probably the first move in Eleanor's long-simmering plot to overthrow him. If Eleanor is guilty, the result could be civil war. The king must once again summon Adelia Aguilar, mistress of the art of death, to uncover the truth.
Adelia is not happy to be called out of retirement. She has been living contentedly in the countryside, caring for her infant daughter, Allie. But Henry's summons cannot be ignored, and Adelia must again join forces with the king's trusted fixer, Rowley Picot, the Bishop of St. Albans, who is also her baby's father.
Adelia and Rowley travel to the murdered courtesan's home, in a tower within a walled labyrinth-a strange and sinister place from the outside, but far more so on the inside, where a bizarre and gruesome discovery awaits them. But Adelia's investigation is cut short by the appearance of Rosamund's rival: Queen Eleanor. Adelia, Rowley, and the other members of her small party are taken captive by Eleanor's henchmen and held in the nunnery of Godstow, where Eleanor is holed up for the winter with her band of mercenaries, awaiting the right moment to launch their rebellion.
Isolated and trapped inside the nunnery by the snow and cold, Adelia and Rowley watch as dead bodies begin piling up. Adelia knows that there may be more than one killer at work, and she must unveil their true identities before England is once again plunged into civil war…
In 1176, King Henry II sends his daughter Joanna to Palermo to marry his cousin, the king of Sicily. Henry chooses Adelia Aguilar, his Mistress of the Art of Death, to travel with the princess and safeguard her health. But when people in the wedding procession are murdered, Adelia and Rowley must discover the killer's identity… and whether he is stalking the princess or Adelia herself.
Starred Review. Set in 1176, Franklin's excellent third Mistress of the Art of Death novel (after The Serpent's Tale) finds Adelia Aguilar, a qualified doctor from the School of Medicine in Salerno, in the holy town of Glastonbury, where Henry II has sent her to inspect two sets of bones rumored to be those of Arthur and Guinevere. Henry is hoping that an unequivocally dead Arthur will discourage the rebellious Welsh. The bones have been uncovered by the few monks, under the saintly Abbot Sigward, who remain after a terrible and mysterious fire devastated the town and abbey. Adelia's party includes her loyal Arabian attendant, Mansur, whose willingness to play the role of doctor allows Adelia to be his translator and practice the profession she loves; and Gyltha, Mansur's lover and the caretaker of Adelia's small daughter, Allie. Eloquently sketched characters, including a ragtag group of Glastonbury men down on their luck, and bits of medieval lore flavor the constantly unfolding plot.
When Christian children are being kidnapped and murdered in 12th century Cambridge, England, Adelia is sent to seek out the truth, and hopefully absolve the Jews being blamed for the crimes, before the townspeople take matters into their own hands. During a time when women are second-class citizens at best, and the practice of scientific autopsies is considered blasphemous, Adelia is the most skilled “speaker for the dead” hailing from progressive Naples – yet she is forced to masquerade as the meek assistant to her colleagues during their frantic search for the real child killer.
From The Washington Post
It's hard enough to produce a gripping thriller – harder still to write convincing historical fiction that recreates a living, breathing past. But this terrific book does both, and does it with a cast of characters so vivid and engaging that you'd be happy to read about them even if they weren't on the track of a sexually depraved serial child-murderer.
Mistress of the Art of Death opens with a clever takeoff on Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, which introduces the central players, a group of pilgrims returning from the shrine of the newly canonized St. Thomas à Becket: a prior and a prioress (from rival abbeys); two knights, lately returned from the Crusades; an overweight but very shrewd tax collector; a gaggle of citizens; and three Gypsies, who are in fact secret investigators sent by the king of Sicily to discover the truth behind a series of gruesome murders near Cambridge.
Four children have been found dead and mutilated. The Jews of Cambridge have been blamed for the murders, the most prominent Jewish moneylender and his wife have been killed by a mob, and the rest of the Jewish community is shut up in the castle under the protection of the sheriff.
As the only group allowed to commit usury – that is, to lend money at interest – the Jews are prosperous, and thus the king of England considers them his prize cash cows. He wants them cleared of suspicion and released, so they can go back to paying him high taxes. To this end, he appeals to his cousin, the king of Sicily, to send his best master of the art of death: a doctor skilled in "reading" bodies. Enter Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar, 25, the best mistress of death that the medical school at Salerno has ever produced. With Simon of Naples, a Jewish "fixer," and Mansur, a eunuch with a mean throwing-ax, it's her job to find a murderer before he – or she – can kill again.
Adelia comes onstage when she meets the prior under dramatic circumstances on the road, saving him from a burst bladder caused by a swollen prostate by thrusting a hollow reed up his penis. Not every man would follow up on an introduction like this, but the prior wants the mystery solved, too – and if the solution happens to ace out the rival abbey, so much the better.
Adelia finds 12th-century England a barbarous place. England finds Adelia a jaw-dropping anomaly. And Franklin exploits the contrast brilliantly. We're on Adelia's side from the start, identifying with her quite modern sensibilities – but at the same time, as she begins to know the English inhabitants as people, we sympathize with them, too. And a small but nice romantic subplot develops as the celibate, married-to-science Adelia discovers to her horror that live bodies have minds of their own.
Though the story is set in Cambridge, the Crusades run through the culture. We see both the corruption and the idealistic faith of the period, and while the Jews come off by far the best, Christians and Muslims are portrayed with evenhanded understanding. Beyond this, the story's background is a wonderful tapestry of the paradoxes and struggles of the times: Christianity and Islam, Christians and Jews, science and superstition, and the new power of Henry II's rule of law versus the stranglehold of the Church.
There are also fascinating details of historical forensic medicine, entertaining notes on women in science (the medical school at Salerno is not fictional), and a nice running commentary on science and superstition, as distinct from religious faith. Franklin does this subtly, by showing effects, rather than by beating us over the head with her opinions. These are clear enough but expressed with artistry rather than political correctness.
Franklin likewise balances cynicism, humanity and objectivity well. Adelia feels horror, fury and sympathy on behalf of the victims and the bereaved, but she doesn't let that get in the way of finding the truth. And the story makes it clear that the motives of those who want a solution to the crime are not necessarily purer than the motives of those who want to conceal it.
Mistress of the Art of Death is wonderfully plotted, with a dozen twists – and with final rabbits pulled out of not one hat but two, as both the mystery and the romance reach satisfactorily unexpected conclusions. It's a historical mystery that succeeds brilliantly as both historical fiction and crime-thriller. Above all, though, Franklin has written a terrific story, whose appeal rests on the personalities of the all-too-human beings who inhabit it.
– Diana Gabaldon, author of a series of historical novels, including "Outlander" and "A Breath of Snow and Ashes."
or Log on
or Sign up