This month’s TBR Challenge book is Ariana Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death.
Why this book? Avid Reader reviewed it when it was first released, and it sounded interesting. [I’ve been intrigued by the Plantagenets since first reading Jean Plaidy’s historical novels, grabbing them from my mother’s stack of library books. Henry II in particular, in part because of his queen, but also because of his legal reforms.] Sadly, when I borrowed this book from the library, I wasn’t in a mood for historical, so I returned it (late) unread. But I ended up buying a copy, because I knew I’d get around to it sooner or later.
Cover art? Beautiful, if a little macabre, given the way the woman is leaning on the skull. But it matches the content, since Adelia is the twelfth century equivalent of a forensic pathologist. She’s not quite comfortable with the dead, pretending they are pigs in her mentor’s body farm, but neither is she uncomfortable.
The blurb: In Cambridge, four children have been murdered. Wrongly accused of the crimes, a small community of Jews threatened by Catholic mobs is given sanctuary by Henry II. To assist in proving their innocence, he summons an expert in the science of deduction and the art of death. She is Adelia, a prodigy from the Medical School of Salerno, and an anomaly in a medieval world, who is forced to conceal her identity and her purpose from England’s grave superstitions and condemnation. One man willing to work with her is Sir Rowley Picot. His personal stake in the investigation makes him an invaluable ally – and in Adelia’s eyes, a suspect as well. From navigating Cambridge’s perilous river paths to penetrating the dark shadows of the Church, Adelia’s investigation will not only reveal the secrets of the dead, but in time, the far more dangerous ones buried by the living
What did I think of the book? Loved it. In fact, after reading it, I bought a hard copy of the second book of the series, The Serpent’s Tale, and then downloaded a copy of the third, Grave Goods, since I couldn’t find a hard copy at either of the local bookstores.
What did I like about the book? Well, everything. That’s not helpful, though, is it?
I suppose what I enjoyed most was the voice of Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar. She is alien to England, a scientist through and through, and her observations of the people and customs of her surroundings are fascinating. More than that, I appreciate how she recognizes her awkward position in English and Norman society, but still manages to maneuver and do the job she’s been sent to do.
It seems clear that Franklin did a monumental amount of historical research based on the descriptions and settings, but none of it is shared via infodumpery; the details seem to appear magically as appropriate.
The secondary characters are as wonderful as Adelia is herself: Mansur, her Moorish companion and guard; Simon the Fixer, who is the “real investigator” while Adelia is merely the examiner of the dead; Gyltha and Ulf, Cambridgeshire natives who are assigned to her as guards of a sort; and Abbot Geoffrey, a father-like figure whom I hope to see again in future books.
Without spoiling anything, I think the personal decision made by Adelia at the end of the book is right for her at that moment. But I’m sure that it is going to cause her no end of heartache in the future.
Keep or pass on? Well, I loved the book, but planned on passing it on to someone else who’d mentioned interest in the book. But there was an unfortunate accident involving an unfastened thermos and the book, so that won’t be happening. Just as well. I’ll pass on a new copy and keep the waterstained copy for myself. On to the second book now.
Anything else worth mentioning? Ariana Franklin has also been published under the name Diana Norman. I read a book under that name, A Catch of Consequence, but it didn’t grab my attention the way this one did, despite having a smart, strong protagonist. Also, I found the dialect used in ACC to be distracting to the point of irritation, which was not the case here. Some speech patterns were changed from what I would consider standard, but not enough to be bothersome.
The book’s webpage is here, including excerpt.