Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin

These reviews were previously posted on our personal blogs, so if you read Marg and Kailana's blogs, you have already read them. New content coming soon!

In Cambridge, a child has been hideously murdered and other children have disappeared. The Jews, made scapegoats by the all-powerful Christian clergy, have been forced to retreat into the castle to avoid slaughter by angry townspeople.

Henry, King of England, is displeased. The Jews provide a large part of his revenue and therefore the real killer must be found, and quickly. A renowned investigator, Simon of Naples, is recruited and he arrives in town from the continent accompanied by an Arab and a young woman, Adelia Aguilar.

There are few female doctors in twelfth century Europe, but Adelia is one of them, having qualified at the great School of Medicine in Salerno. What's more, her speciality is the study of corpses; she is, in fact, a mistress of the art of death, a skill that must be concealed in case she's accused of witchcraft.

Adelia's investigation takes her deep into Cambridge, its castle and convents and in a medieval city teeming with life, Adelia makes friends and even finds romance. And, fatally, the attention of a murderer who is prepared to kill again.

Marg says:

As soon as I learned that the name Ariana Franklin was a pseudonym for Diana Norman, I added it to my TBR list! I did, however, have to wait a little while for it to come onto the library list but it did eventually! I was a bit worried that it wasn't going to because the first book written under this name (City of Shadows) still hasn't made it onto the catalogue! I am too impatient after reading this one...I've ordered it from The Book Depository (have I mentioned recently how much I love that is so much cheaper for me to buy books from there than it is to go into a bookstore here.)

A young boy is found murdered and because he was crucified before being found in the river, the finger of blame has been pointed at the Jews of Cambridge. Now two more children are missing, the townspeople have revolted against the Jews, and now the Jews are sheltering in the castle. This situation doesn't make anyone happy - least of all the volatile King Henry II, who now not only has to feed all these people, but whose treasury is now falling woefully short of funds because the Jews are not paying him his share! Something must be done.

And so, at the behest of the King of Sicily, our main characters enter the story. He has agreed to send some investigators to help hopefully clear the name of the Cambridge Jews, to find out who the murderer really was, and to set matters to rights again. The group that is sent to England is an interesting one. There is Simon the Jew, Mansur the Saracen and a young female doctor by the name of Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar. Whilst a female doctor is not all that unusual in the medical schools of Salerno, it is unheard of in 12th century England, and steps have to be taken to make it appear as though Mansur is the doctor in order to ensure that there are no accusations of witchcraft. Even in Salerno Adelia is somewhat unusual though, because she is no ordinary doctor. She is a Mistress of the Art of Death, someone who looks at a body and tries to figure out how they died - performing an early kind of autopsy.

The book opens at a cracking pace, with all of the main characters, including our investigators, a prioress and a prior who never see eye to eye, a couple of crusader knights, the king's tax man all travelling together in convoy heading towards Cambridge. Unfortunately the prior has a very delicate problem. He is unable to urinate, and his bladder is in danger of bursting, so it is Adelia to the rescue, performing a very sensitive operation on the Prior, and thus ensuring that they have at least one person on their side once they get to Cambridge. Coincidentally, as the group arrive in the town, so the bodies of the other missing children turn up to, and so Adelia is able to commence her examinations.

It isn't long before the townspeople know that they have a new doctor in town, and so not only are the investigators required to try and determined how and why the children died, and who killed them, but also maintain the masquerade that Mansur is the doctor and Adelia is his assistant.

With the field of suspects narrowing, everyone is now in danger, and Adelia and her companions must decide who to trust, especially as she is feeling a growing attachment to one of the suspects, who is the King's tax man, Sir Rowley Picolt. The growing relationship between the two of them was deftly handled, without being completely cliched, and whilst the resolution may have been somewhat unusual and unlikely, it did suit the two characters involved.

With a great group of supporting characters, colourful descriptions of time and place, conflict between Church and state, between religions and between man and woman, there is a lot going on in this novel, but for the most part the author manages to keep all the threads in hand and neatly weaves them together for a very chilling showdown with the killer, and the resulting trials were very dramatic as well.

The characters that have been introduced in this book are certainly interesting and colourful, and would fit naturally in a series, so I was glad to hear that there is another Mistress book to come! No idea when it is coming..but just the fact that it is is enough for now!

Kailana Says:

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!

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