Sunday, January 4, 2009

Book Review: Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin (aka Diana Norman)

Mistress of the Art of Death has been in my TBR pile since its publication. In fact, it probably should have gone on my TBR Challenge list at least a couple of years ago, but the list is so long, it sort of got lost in the depths of it.

Like a lot of books that find their way into my TBR pile, this one happened to casually announce itself through my former job as a sales girl at the local big-box bookstore. I would scower the shelves and the display tables for something new and interesting (and there was always something new and interesting), then write down the title or the author to take home. My pockets were full of slips of paper by the end of most of my shifts.

Despite the fact that I would ritually spend half my pay cheque on new books, I never picked this one up. I thought about it during my weekly trip to the bookstore. As I was checking out the graphic novels, for some reason my eyes shifted to the next shelf over. Lo and behold, there it was, staring me in the face.

Mistress is set in twelfth century England. Four children from Cambridge and the surrounding area have been kidnapped and murdered in a horrible fashion. The first child was found crucified and the local Jews have been accused of the murders. Cambridge, incensed by these brutal killings, force the Jews to flee to the castle, where they are protected by the sheriff, but not before Chaim, Cambridge’s most successful moneylender (and the unfortunate soul who discovers the first murdered child), is lynched, along with his wife.

King Henry I is shrewd—he is not interested in seeing the most profitable citizens of his kingdom expelled or massacred. Not when there are wars to be won and coffers to be filled.

His answer arrives in a pilgrimmage. An unlikely trio arrive in Cambridge: Simon, the best investigator the King of Naples can send, Mansur, a Moor, and Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar—mistress of the art of death. Salerno, home of Europe’s best medical experts, is where they come from, and they are commanded to find the murderer, and (hopefully) exonerate the Jews.

Adelia is a wonder—a female doctor in a world where even male doctors are considered an oddity, she is faced with the task of examining the corpses to determine who could have committed such a heinous act, while evading the notice of the Cambridge townfolk. It isn’t always easy to avoid notice, being the only group of foreigners in town.

Of course, this is Adelia’s story. But Franklin does not allow the other characters to become one-dimensional. They each have their quirks, which makes the book much more than just a mystery—it’s a novel about ordinary people in a historical setting reacting to extra-ordinary circumstances.

Child-killers are rare even in today’s society. To find your community invaded by a serial killer during that time must have been a truly frightening experience, and you can see how such events can create monsters and demons to frighten us in the dead of night. Indeed, Franklin ultimately turns him into a demon by his ritual--when he kills he transforms himself into an animal by wearing a pair of antlers, and he lures children to his den with jujubes, the Pied Piper of the fens.

I enjoyed learning the history of the fenland people, their accents especially. At times it was hard to get the gist of what they were saying, and I can only imagine how much harder it would have been for poor Adelia.

I didn’t enjoy Mistress right from the beginning. For one thing, the book’s language is frilly. But as the mystery soon enfolded, I was quickly sucked in. It’s part-CSI thriller, part-historical fiction, with a dash of romance thrown in to round it out completely. I’ll add The Serpent’s Tale on the TBR pile, because I like Adelia a lot and I’m interested to learn more.

Having also read Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth, I have a greater appreciation for the history as well. Franklin’s novel paints a different side of Henry I—in Mistress he is more than just the instigator of Thomas รก Beckett’s death, he is a sensible and fair king who struggles with the limits of his own power. He also has some of the best lines in the book.

Definitely worth a read if you’re interested in the time period, or enjoy medical mysteries.

Rating: 4 stars


Kathy said...

I think I might like this you own it now?

Olga said...

I do not, unfortunately. This was a library book. I think you would like it too--there's also a sequel called The Serpent's Tale.