Thursday, June 07, 2007

Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin

Completion Date: June 2007
Publication Year: 2007
Pages: 400
Purchased in 2007

In medieval Cambridge, four children have been murdered. The Catholic townsfolk blame their Jewish neighbors, so to save them from the rioting mob, the Cambridge Jews are placed under the protection of the king. King Henry II is no friend of the Jews—or anyone, really—but he believes in law and order, and he desperately needs the taxes he receives from Jewish merchants. Hoping scientific investigation will catch the true killer, Henry calls on his cousin, the King of Sicily—whose subjects include the best medical experts in Europe—and asks for his finest "master of the art of death," the earliest form of medical examiner. The Italian doctor chosen for the task is a young prodigy from the University of Salerno, an expert in the science of anatomy and the art of detection. But her name is Adelia; the king has been sent a "mistress of the art of death."

In a backward and superstitious country like England, Adelia faces danger at every turn. As she examines the victims and retraces their last steps, Adelia must conceal her true identity in order to avoid accusations of witchcraft. Along the way, she’s assisted by one of the king’s tax collectors, Sir Rowley Picot, a man with a personal stake in the investigation. A former Crusader knight, Rowley may be a needed friend ... or the fiend for whom they are searching. As Adelia’s investigation takes her along Cambridge’s shadowy river paths, and behind the closed doors of its churches and nunneries, the hunt intensifies and the killer prepares to strike again...

When I first was made aware of this book, I was not sure if it was really my sort of book. Then, I began to hear a bit about it, and I got curious, so when I saw it at the store the other day I decided to pick it up and see what it was all about. I am very happy to report that I enjoyed the writing style immensely.

This novel covers a period in time for Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar, a doctor of Salerno. Adelia, as she is called in the book, is from a place that is revolutionary for its time because it allows her to become a doctor. Found abandoned when she was just a baby, she is taken in by two doctors. Her potential is seen from an early age, and so she begins the life of study to become a doctor. She is not a doctor to the living, though, she is a doctor to the dead, and through her the dead speak. She hears their stories by looking at their bodies and makes sure that the truth is discovered.

In Cambridge, the setting of this book, Simon of Naples, an investigator, is called upon to find out what is killing children in the area. The King has turned to the King of Sicily for aid, and they have decided that a doctor should also go to aid the investigation. The head of the medical centre there believes that Adelia is the best person for the job, even if she is a female and will have to hide the fact that she is a doctor while in Cambridge so as to not be accused of witchcraft. It is her bodyguard, Mansur, who is believed to be the doctor for the majority of the time that they are in Cambridge. He is unable to speak English, so it is easy to make it look like he is giving Adelia instructions when really it is she that is instructing him.

When they are called to Cambridge, only three children had been murdered, but on their way there, another one has been added. The first is a boy named Peter, who the prioress of Radegund wants to see sainted. She even has an exhibition set up where people can go to touch his bones and reap healing qualities. The other three victims are Ulf, Harold and Mary. It is up to Adelia to hear their cries for help and for Simon to get to the bottom of the murders. Things do not alway work out how they are supposed to, though, and there are a lot of twists and turns before the end is reached.

There are other interesting characters found in the novel. There is Gyltha, the housekeeper, who keeps the little band of characters together. There is Prior Geoffrey, a religious man, who meets Adelia under some embarassing circumstances, but is her ally from there on. There is Sir Rowley Picot who becomes an unlikely ally and a likely suspect. There is Prioress Joan, who is the Head of Saint Radegund and an interesting character from Ariana to spend time with.

This book has a lot going on in it. It has the mystery aspect of who is killing the children and why now after so many years with no apparent deaths. Romance even comes to call in this book, even though the majority of the people have sworn off relationships for religious and personal reasons, but are starting to wonder if they made the right choice. Adelia is a very empowering female character for the times that this book is taking place during. She is risking her life for these children because she could easily be found out and accused of witchcraft. She worries me in the end, but she redeems herself in my books.

The question really is whether the murderer is the most likely person or is it someone that will shock readers everywhere. Read and find out!


  1. I am glad you enjoyed it! I am getting to be a real fan of Diana Norman/Ariana Franklin!

  2. Anonymous10:32 AM

    It was a good novel wasn't it? My only quibble really was that I didn't like the romance aspect in the novel. I kind of wish that would have been kept for the next book, which I believe this will be a series.

  3. Yeah, that's what I meant about not sure I liked Ariana near the end because she seemed so willing to totally change who she was, but she redeemed herself. I still could have done without the romance at all, it seemed a BIT weird to be honest, but people will be drawn to it for that aspect. And, yes, it is a series I believe, the newest book comes out in 2008.

  4. Mistress of the Art of Death impressed me to no end, especially since I’ve always been apprehensive about historical crime fiction. But Mistress … does a neat job of keeping itself accessible to contemporary sensibilities while remaining a plausible take of 12th-century England. I’d call that quite a feat, and I look forward to reading the second book in the series.

    The romance was not my favorite part of the novel either, especially since romance is not my genre. But I will give Ariana Franklin credit for having some fun with it. I rolled my eyes when she made it appear that Adelia was going to find and marry her Shining White Knight. Then I rolled my eyes again when Franklin had Adelia turn him down, because I thought I was running into a bit of feminist tendentiousness. But I smiled when Franklin came up with a happy medium between marriage and refusal!
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    “Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home”


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