Desert Isle Keeper Review

Mistress of the Art of Death

Ariana Franklin
2008 reissue of 2007 release, Historical Mystery (1170s [Medieval] England)
Berkley, $15.00, 432 pages, Amazon ASIN 0425219259
Part of a series

Grade: A-
Sensuality: Subtle

A variety of reasons compelled me to buy Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin. One, I love the historical novels she has written as Diana Norman, with Shores of Darkness being by absolute favorite. Two, my sister lived in Cambridge for four years, and any novel set in Cambridge arouses my curiosity. Three, I am interested in the history of the sciences, and I was thrilled to see that this novel partly deals with the historic Medical School of Salerno. The novel proved one of a most gripping read.

Three children have been found murdered and mutilated in Cambridge, and some signs point to the Jews. When mobs attack the Cambridge Jews, they seek refuge in the king’s castle, effectively blocking their trade. Henry II wants his taxes from the Jews, and to end the stalemate he sends to Salerno in Southern Italy for a “master of the art of death,” a forensic specialist. Whom he gets is the renowned investigator Simon of Naples, an Arab servant, and Adelia Aguilar, a female doctor and “mistress of the art of death.” Because she is a woman, Adelia can only do her research in secret, but on the journey to Cambridge, she manages to save the life of Prior Geoffrey, the most influential cleric in Cambridge, who eases her way into English life and the investigation.

Adelia has a most unusual background: She was found as a baby on the slopes of Vesuvius and adopted by a Jewish-Christian couple, both doctors at the University of Salerno, then the leading medical faculty in the known world. At the University, Christians, Jews and Muslims mingle and exchange their knowledge, women practice medicine, and great value is placed on observation. This background explains why Adelia is fairly modern in her thinking, which causes her some problems in England and which may grate on some readers, but (as far as I can ascertain), this backstory is historically accurate as regards Salerno.

The crimes Adelia comes to investigate are not for the faint of heart. For one thing, they are committed against children, and although the author spares readers a detailed description of the childrens’ sufferings as they experience them, she includes - in great detail - descriptions of the bodies as Adelia interprets them. These descriptions, and that of the crime scene, were quite enough for me, thank you.

The hero of the novel is difficult to spot at first, so I won’t name him here. Suffice it to say that he is unusual, not that likable (or sexy) at first sight, but step by step he is revealed as one of the most complex and compelling heroes I've come across, and utterly adorable with all his flaws.

With two such fascinating main characters, it is small wonder that their romance is out-of-the-common and very beautiful. Both hero and heroine are stubborn to a fault, and it is fascinating to read how their very different yet equally valid concepts of honor make them clash. As this is the first novel in a series, the romance ends happily and satisfyingly, but there are some possible twists that I look forward to reading about in the next volume.

What I really loved about this book was the lyrical quality of the language. Ariana Franklin does not try to simulate faux Medieval language. Instead she writes in a very beautiful and evocative modern style. Some of the strongest scenes in the novel include descriptions of life on the crusades on behalf of the hero. Here the horrors of the crusades are depicted unblinkingly, but at the same time a view is offered of a possible harmonious and enriching coexistence of the faiths which took place in phases of cease-fire and which is mirrored by what Adelia knows from Salerno.

The single aspect of the novel that annoyed me is the fact that although for the most part the reader shares Adelia’s and the hero’s viewpoint and is privy to all their observations and deductions, the author withholds the identity of the perpetator of the crimes in this story for some pages for dramatic reasons. That felt a bit like cheating to me given readers' prior access to the main characters' thoughts.

This minor flaw aside, Mistress of the Art of Death is an exciting read that offers fascinating insights to little-known aspects of Medieval life and a lovable if sometimes thick-headed couple as protagonists. I cannot recommend it highly enough and have already ordered my copy of The Serpent’s Tale, its sequel.

-- Rike Horstmann

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