Monday, January 17, 2011

Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin — 400 pgs


Book CoverDr. Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar has just been dispatched from Salerno to Cambridge in an effort to help catch a killer. This particular killer chooses children as his victims, and as the story begins, he has had his savage and bloodthirsty way with four of them. As the murdered children are all Christians, suspicion begins to fall on the Jews of Cambridge, much to the chagrin of King Henry, who wishes to see them absolved. Adelia finds herself in a strange predicament after landing in Cambridge, for although she's a doctor of particular renown in Salerno, the attitudes of the English prevent her from practicing openly: one because she is a female, and two because her specialty in the examination of dead bodies is regarded with suspicion and considered witchcraft. Under a cloak of secrecy, Adelia begins her investigation into the brutal murders, uncovering surprising and damning evidence of not only the supposed killer, but of the town and the people he is hidden among. When Sir Rowly Picot joins the investigation at Adelia's side, she's far from happy. Rowley has his own reasons for wanting information about the killer, but Adelia isn't quite sure he shouldn't be considered a suspect. As the two creep closer and closer to the truth, the unknown killer begins to venomously resist from the shadows, placing Adelia and Rowley into some of the most sinister and dangerous situations that they've ever faced. In this complex and deeply dark blend of historical fiction and mystery, two of the most unlikely allies must come together to unmask a horrible and demonic killer, and to save Cambridge's children before it's too late.

I rarely read books that are part of a series nowadays. For one thing, they're a bit tougher to review than standalone novels. Also, I find myself wanting to gulp down the entire series at one time, which can be a problem when there are so many other books vying for attention. I made an exception for these books after reading some really great reviews on them, and I have to admit the medieval setting was one that I couldn't ignore. I'm really glad I made the choice to read these books, but now I'm in the predicament that I dreaded, with wanting to read on and continue the series, come hell or high water.

What I noticed first about this book as I was reading, was the unremitting darkness that surrounded the plot and characters. One could argue that the medieval age was one of particular darkness, but I think this book strove deeply for a real feeling of foreboding and ominousness. From the outset, the murders of the children take center stage and there is no shying away from all the gruesome details. Even the introduction of Adelia manages to be suffused with cryptic portent, explaining her time among the other scholars of Salerno who are fluent in the art of death. This setting of the scene may have come across as too maudlin had it not been handled in the right way, but Franklin does a lot during these sections to set the perfect stage and to make these characters into people the reader is eager to know. As things begin to move forward, the pall remains, hanging over every description and scene, creating a medieval England that's not only dangerous and sinister, but ripe for the talents that Adelia has to offer.

The historical sections were what really interested me the most. Ostensibly, this book has a dual genre, bobbing between historical fiction and mystery, but I think I took the most enjoyment from the history. Franklin does a great deal to make the book feel authentic, from the prejudices and strictures against women, and particularly women skilled in the art of healing, to the oppressive and heavy-handed role of the church in Cambridge society. The attitudes of the population at that time were particularly backward in most cases, and the commoners needed little urging to become bloodthirsty, which in the case of this story, felt all too real. As Adelia is forced to investigate under cover, I began to see that the things which hindered her were not only the conventions of the people surrounding her, but the lack of enlightenment that spread far and wide throughout the realm.

I wasn't as impressed with the mystery aspects of this book early on, because it was pretty obvious to me who the killer was. But Franklin had a few aces up her sleeve and I managed to be shocked at the mystery despite myself. Often I shy away mysteries because it's always too easy for me to figure things out, but here, the mystery had a fullness and an unexpectedness that really thrilled me. There was definitely more to this story than met the eye, and turning the last page, I was both horrified and excited to find out where the next book would lead me. It was definitely a more sinister story than I had first thought it would or could be, and I liked that every character in the book played their part with skill and efficiency. The implications this story raised were much more troubling than the murder that Adelia was contracted to solve, leaving me to marvel at Franklin's skill at creating this microcosm of the medieval world, a world seething with malevolence.

it's interesting to note the position of women in this society. Being a woman tied to the Church or the wife of a commoner were the excepted norms, but for Adleia's safety, it's better that she hides her status as a learned woman, lest she be accused of witchcraft. A lot of the time, these strictures hinder and anger her, for coming from a place that respects the contributions of both male and females, Adleia is loathe to give up her rights and privileges. Though she must be covert in her dealings with the dead, a few of the other characters come to know her for who she really is and must protect her secret alongside of her. Even those in the know find her strange and inexplicable knowledge almost sinister, and realize the possession of this knowledge means danger to themselves. Though Adelia is severely limited in the ways she can investigate, she finds a way to do what is necessary and complete her job.

The plight of Cambridge's Jews was also very interesting. As taxpayers, they are of great importance to the king, but since the murders of the children, the other townsfolk have basically kept them in fear for their lives and hiding in an abandoned castle. It seems Cambridge and England is no stranger to anti-Semitism, and in fact, throughout history and across continents, Jews have been vilified for a number of reasons that are incredible to think about. By highlighting this aspect of the story, Franklin is able to discourse on the unfair blame that the Jews have shouldered, even in a place so far removed in time. In the discovery of the true murderer, the Jews are forgiven and accepted back into the town, but the damage has been done and things will never be the same. The unfortunate sting of blame and recrimination becomes just one pinpoint of the humiliations and injustices the Jewish population must endure throughout time.

I was unexpectedly pleased with the depth and power of this book. Many of the topics and situations are specific to the time and place described, but I found that Franklin's ability to make them resonant, even in today's society, was masterful. Though this was one of the darker books I've read in some time, I found it to be one that I couldn't put down, and the intelligence and complexity of the narrative was delightful to me. I think lovers of historical fiction would do well to pick up this book, as well as those mystery lovers looking for something beyond the norm. I'm already in the middle of the next installment and am finding it to be just as entertaining and engrossing as the first. It was a really great read, made greater by the author's ability to tease out the more meaningful aspects of the story. Recommended.

22 comments:

Jenny said...

I didn't realize this book was part of a series. (I find it difficult reviewing series too, so I have some that have languished on my to-be-written list, lol). This book sounds like something I'd really like, but for some reason I always feel like it's so long... (but 400 isn't that long, lol!)

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

Here is another example of a book I had no interest in until I read your amazing review.....need to check out the series

rhapsodyinbooks said...

This one is much darker than the next ones. I wasn't quite as crazy about the second book, but loved the third one more than the first two! I have the fourth on order, since I too can never let a series go untapped!

bermudaonion said...

It sounds like this book is really well written, but it just might be a little too dark for me right now.

Trisha said...

I am addicted to series, but I hate them for the very reason you mention: I want to read the whole series back to back which really pushes out all of the other books I have to read. :) In this case, I think I may say Oh Well though as it sounds deliciously dark.

TheBookGirl said...

I am not familar with this series at all. The sense I got from your review is that this may be somewhat similar to Ian Pears' historical-mysteries. I read one, An Instance of the Fingerpost, years ago. Have you read any of Pears' work, and if so, is that a fair comparison?

Nymeth said...

I feel a little lonely in my dislike for this book :P It seemed like something I would love, but I just didn't connect with it. I'm glad you felt differently about it, though! (I'd much rather have liked it as well :P)

Jenny said...

I started reading this book a few years ago, and actually it was the historical stuff that wasn't there for me. It felt too modern for me to enjoy. But maybe I should give it another go -- I do like to read the first in a really good series of books, and feel that the best is still ahead of me. :)

nomadreader (Carrie) said...

I didn't realize this book was part of a series! Several people have recommended it to me as I'm on a bit of a historical fiction kick right now. I'm definitely going to read these when I finish the Maisie Dobbs series!

Aarti said...

I've heard a lot about this series of books, but very mixed reactions. I am not sure whether I should invest in it or not. In some ways, it's right up my alley, being historical mystery. I like that it's a female who actually deals with the restrictions on her, too. Hmm, decisions, decisions.

Marg said...

I liked the early books in this series a lot, but have been a bit disappointed by the last couple. I also really, really liked the books that I have read that this author wrote under her real name, Diana Norman. I would love to get hold of some of her earlier straight historical fiction novels.

Pam (@iwriteinbooks) said...

This sounds really intense and dark. I never thought that sort of thing was my cup of tea but lately, I'm finding my interest turning. Beautiful review, as always. :O)

Literary Feline said...

I've had a copy of this one in my TBR collection for some time now but haven't managed to get to it. I am glad you enjoyed it, Heather. As you know, I love series books as well as mysteries. I hadn't realized there were already four books out! I guess I'd better start reading! Unless it's already packed away . . .

Erin said...

I really love this series, and I'm glad you enjoyed the first volume (s far)! I'm not usually a mystery reader, but the historical angle to these ones provided enough interest to keep me reading. I also liked the whole cast of characters and thought Franklin did a really nice job creating them. I say read the next three, quickly, and then you'll have to wait between subsequent installments, when you'll have plenty of time to read other books! Three and four were my favorites. Enjoy!

Meghan said...

I'm so glad you felt as enthusiastically about this book as me! I agree that the historical part was most interesting for me, but the mystery proved to be unexpectedly appealing. In fact, I don't know why I haven't moved on to the next in the series yet - you've just reminded me that I should!

Coffee and a Book Chick said...

This is definitely one that I've been excited to read - I got the book a while ago from Paperbackswap and have just been trying to muddle through all the books that I already have and at some point I need to get to this one. I love when history is incorporated into a book - that's the part that pulls me in as well.

Jenners said...

Ooohhh...sounds like a good book and series.

I know what you mean about shying away from series. But I've learned to parcel them out to myself so I don't get "sick" of them if I read them all in a row. Like I'm holding on to Tana French's last book so I can savor it and give it its due.

Thanks for another wonderful review.

Suko said...

I'm not familiar with this series, but this book sounds incredible. As a fan of historical fiction this may be my cup of tea, even if it is rather dark. Wonderful review, as usual.

Marie said...

Sounds like a winner! I know when you like I book I will too! :-)

Melissa M said...

I've heard great things about this series for years, and have all of them on my shelf. I started this one last year, but the dark setting didn't catch my mood then. It's one I do want to try again.

Lisa said...

I liked the history in this one more as well, but Franklin really did keep me guessing on the mystery part. I still need to pick up the next book.

Swapna said...

I totally agree series books are harder to review - I've started combining reviews for them! This is a series I've been wanting to try.

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