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Abandon all hope of historical accuracy...and you might enjoy it
on 17 November 2008
On the one hand I enjoyed this novel very much. Ariana Franklin is a consummate story teller and her characters and the setting in which they act and react are wonderfully realised. You can actually believe you are there with them in the world she has built. There are some delightfully realised secondary personages. I was particularly fond of eelwife Gytha and her cheeky urchin son, Ulf. Henry II is spot on and I really warmed to Ariana Franklin's version of this fiercely intelligent king with his mingling of imperious authority and mischievous common touch - Bravo! It's a page turner, no doubt about it and for all the above reasons I would be glad to give it five stars.
However.... Abandon all hope of historical veracity ye who enter here. There are the usual detail errors that irk me because I know my 12th century and further irk me because the author claims on her website that she is historically accurate. I think not! Mention of brandy and laudanum which were not available in that century - so therefore some of the scenes could never have happened. Three Angevin lions when there were only two until the early 1190's. Costume errors. Sometimes it was more like reading about Chaucer's Pilgrims than the Becket bunch. Images such as Henry II talking about his billiard table (conjures a hilarious image of Henry with his cue in hand leaning over a table in the smoky fug of a bar!) or having his head referred to as a cannon ball, yanked me straight out of the story. There are errors peppered throughout the novel both the large and the small, of detail and of mindset.
The heroine is a woman of 21st century sensibilities, who also acts like a 21st century TV forensic expert. There's a moment when she comes to examine her first victim when she garbs herself in the medieval equivalent of scrubs (!) and with an assistant to write down the findings with chalk and slate begins speaking in a monotone. 'The remains of a young female. Some fair hair still attached to the skull...' At this point I burst out laughing because it was so preposterous. The author tells us that Salerno had a body farm where pigs were killed and buried in different circumstances and seasons so that the students could observe the various states of decay. This again caused this reader much mirth. I doubt that Salerno and the teachings of the Trotula were quite on this wavelength. I have the kind of mind that gets hung up on practicalities and is constantly asking 'Would this really have happened?' At the beginning of the novel, Adelia saves the life of a prior by draining his swollen bladder using a straw catheter. Said prior then makes a full and complete recovery and is a perky, helpful chap as the novel continues. But to have that condition in the first place speaks of serious underlying problems. So to have him one moment dying of a blocked bladder and the next fit as a flea and back to normal just doesn't ring true.
The best way to read this book if you are at all sensitive about historical veracity, is to lock up your disbelief before you begin reading and throw away the key. Make a pact to ignore the blurbs about 'well researched', treat Ariana Franklin's medieval Cambridge as an alternative world and you will really enjoy this novel. I give this 10 out of 10 for characterisation, atmosphere and page turning quality, 6 out of 10 for the mystery element which was entertaining but a bit weak in places, and 3 out of 10 for historical accuracy - mainly because she gets Henry II correct (apart from aforementioned billiards, the reference to cannon balls and the surplus lion on his shield which really needs to wait until his son Richard has been to Cyprus. His character is good though). Three stars I think to average things out.