Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Review: Mistress of the Art of Death

Mistress of the Art of Death

Release Date: 6 February 2007
Pages: 398
Genre: Historical Fiction, Mystery-Thriller
Target Audience: Adult 
Series: Mistress of the Art of Death #1
Source and Format: Purchased, Softcover

Summary (From Goodreads)
A chilling, mesmerizing novel that combines the best of modern forensic thrillers with the detail and drama of historical fiction.

In medieval Cambridge, England, four children have been murdered. The crimes are immediately blamed on the town's Jewish community, taken as evidence that Jews sacrifice Christian children in blasphemous ceremonies. To save them from the rioting mob, the king places the Cambridge Jews under his protection and hides them in a castle fortress. King Henry II is no friend of the Jews-or anyone, really-but he is invested in their fate. Without the taxes received from Jewish merchants, his treasuries would go bankrupt. Hoping scientific investigation will exonerate the Jews, 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," an early version of the medical examiner. The Italian doctor chosen for the task is a young prodigy from the University of Salerno. But her name is Adelia-the king has been sent a mistress of the art of death.

Adelia and her companions-Simon, a Jew, and Mansur, a Moor-travel to England to unravel the mystery of the Cambridge murders, which turn out to be the work of a serial killer, most likely one who has been on Crusade with the king. In a backward and superstitious country like England, Adelia must conceal her true identity as a doctor in order to avoid accusations of witchcraft. Along the way, she is assisted by Sir Rowley Picot, one of the king's tax collectors, a man with a personal stake in the investigation. Rowley may be a needed friend, or the fiend for whom they are searching. As Adelia's investigation takes her into 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...

Thoughts on Mistress of the Art of Death
I was meandering through Borders (yes, Borders. Remember those?) one day and this book caught my eye. Actually, the title caught my eye. How could you not pick up a book with a title like that? I read the synopsis on the back, which sounded interesting but not like something I would want to buy. Fast forward 4 years and I am in grad school studying to be a medievalist and this book makes its way back into my life via 2nd & Charles (arguably the best bookstore in America). Needless to say, I was hooked.

I really enjoyed Ariana Franklin's writing style. Her prose is very easy to understand. She writes like her main character, Adelia, thinks- practical and to the point. She is, however, very tongue in check at parts. Her characters are unlike anyone else you have read. There is no danger of being fed stereotypical cliches here. Who would think to put a female doctor, a Muslim castrati, and a stuffy English lord together? It works beautifully. Franklin also puts her own spin on known historical people, such as Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine (in subsequent books).

Another thing I really liked about this book (and the series) is the picture you get of life in England in the late 1100's. Franklin does an excellent job of giving the reader an accurate description of life in the Middle Ages. She incorporates the historical political intrigues of the time into her narrative in such a way that you actually learn something while you are reading, without even realizing it. 

There are 4 books in this series and I am glad I didn't pick up the first one until all were published. The wait would have been interminable. There was a 5th book in the works but Ariana Franklin passed away before she could finish it. Each of these books is wonderful, with the 3rd one, Grave Goods, being my favorite. I have to say it is unusual for me to like a later book in a series more than the first. Grave Goods contains a mystery surrounding King Arthur, however, so of course that is the best one in my opinion.

Memorable Quote
“... Turn over that stone" - she pointed to a flint nearby - "and you will find a charlatan who will dazzle you with the favorable conjunction of Mercury and Venus, flatter your future, and sell you colored water for a gold piece. I can't be bothered with it. From me you get the actuality.”

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