on 26 April 2010
I read the second book of the series before this one and therefore did not totally understand the histories of the main characters. I can safely say to any prospective reader that whilst the second book can be read as a stand alone novel, I would heartily recommend you read this one first.
Adelia, the main protagonist, is a fascinating but completely alien character to this early medieval environment in which she has been placed. However, if you are prepared to overlook the fact that Adelia's medical knowledge and social demeanour do not really belong in this period of time, you are in for a very absorbing read.
The book is certainly not for the fainthearted as the central plot involves the murder of children; at times described in quite graphic detail. If this is likely to cause upset or distress, then you should probably give this book a miss.
Fans of C. J. Sansom should enjoy this read as it's quite similar in style and genre. Adelia proves to be quite a likeable character once you get to know her and will probably become a firm favourite of many people to come.
If you are looking for a historical "Whodunnit" then look no further.
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.
on 26 July 2011
I've read a couple of negative reviews on this book, pointing out small details that are historically inaccurate. I'm not a historian, nor do I know a lot about the 12th century, so there was nothing to pull me out of the novel's world. I do know a little about the period, and I did greatly enjoy the characterisation of King Henry, and the English characters' general xenophobia felt accurate to me also.
The novel has a prologue and an epilogue and initially I found the voice of the prologue quite difficult, not just because of its omniscient narration but because it addresses the reader in a way I haven't seen in many recent novels. It felt quite 19th Century to me, and that's not a good thing to my taste. That said, the intrusive narrator soon disappears and the plot and characters gripped me rapidly.
The main character is fabulous. Yes, her views are quite modern (which may have irritated some other reviewers), but to me that's entirely consistent with a woman doing an uncharacteristic job and encountering prejudice on a regular basis. Or, more accurately, having to go to extraordinary lengths to avoid the prejudice that could see her put to death as a witch!
As a crime novel, there is some unpleasant detail - this is a book about a child murderer, after all - but considerably less than many others I've read. The text also doesn't delve into the psychology of the murderer, which seems historically consistent to me. Psychoanalysis as an explanation for criminology is a pretty recent concept, after all.
On a personal level, having grown up in East Anglia, I really enjoyed the depiction of Cambridge: its atmospheric fenland and especially the local dialect, which was very effectively drawn and frequently made me smile in recognition. Overall, this is a well-paced crime novel with a strong cast of characters and a beautifully-evoked setting, in terms of geography and history.
I received my copy free for review through the Transworld Great Crime Caper.
A child has been brutally murdered in Cambridge and three others disappeared; the population blames the Jews, who had to seek refuge in the castle after an angry mob killed two of their own. Without the Jews being able to ply their trade, King Henry II is losing valuable revenue and has asked his friend, the king of Sicily, to send an investigator and someone versed in the art of death, in other words, a forensic scientist. As a result, Simon of Naples, along with Mansur, the manservant and bodyguard, and Adelia Aguilar, doctor to the dead, arrive in England on their secret mission, intent on discovering the child killer.
Having read The Death Maze first (not realising when I picked it up that it was the second volume in a series featuring Adelia Aguilar), I was very keen to start at the beginning to discover how Adelia and Mansur had arrived in England. As with The Death Maze, Ariana Franklin's characterisation is first class (I particularly liked the dog, Safeguard, with its abominable smell), imbuing everyone (fictitious or real) with flesh and blood. The feudal system, the power struggles between the Church and the State (in the person of the king), the persecution of the Jews, as well as day-to-day life in Cambridge towards the end of the 12th century, were brought vividly to life, and the identity of the killer (mostly) a surprise. As this novel is about the murder of young children, some of the passages were quite harrowing, especially to me as a parent. The reason this book doesn't quite get full marks is that there were sections in the middle of the book where the pace slowed quite considerably, as the group investigate and Franklin gives the reader a flavour of the time, perhaps losing herself in detail a little too much to maintain the pace. I also would have welcomed a glossary of the more unfamiliar words of the time and of the East Anglian dialect that some of the characters in the novel are fond of using.
I was sad to learn about the author's death (now already two years ago) while I was reading it, so it's upsetting to imagine that there won't be any further adventures with Adelia and her friends after the fourth volume, Assassin's Prayer. In the meantime, I've already got the third volume, Relics of the Dead (sitting on the shelf), to look forward to.
on 17 April 2013
This is the second time I've bought this book - why? Because I loved it, and loved the 3 subsequent novels featuring Adelia Aguilar, the 13th century Sicilian doctor who becomes 'attached' to Henry II of England. Attached in that he needs her expertise - which leads to all manner of adventures, and a most intriguing love affair with one of Henry's knights. 'Mistress of the Art of Death' is a medieval thriller and detective story rich in detail but never boring. Page turning, compelling to the point of needing to read the subsequent novels. As I say, I bought his book again to complete the set - the first one went missing. I shall read all four over again - the best praise there is!
on 10 April 2010
I would have thought the comparison to be made when reviewing this book is with other historical detective fiction rather than Diana Norman's other works. By that standard this a good read, far better than the average potboiler in the genre. All these books are anachronistic and this is no different - but as the whole thing is a bit of fun it hardly matters. If you've read C J Sansom you should enjoy this. I wouldn't say it's as good, but is certainly a promising start to a new detective series.
I've really enjoyed Diana Norman's three Makepeace Hedley novels (A Catch of Consequence,Taking Liberties,Sparks Fly Upward) and so had higher expectations for this. Sadly this was a far more uneven offering that lacks all the unique qualities that Norman brought to the historical/romance genre.
Other reviewers have outlined the plot so I won't repeat that, but I felt that the protagonist as a proto-feminist doctor has just become very tired and outworn. I could predict with weariness Adelia's outbursts of how badly women are treated etc etc. She's also a very uneven character: at times she's described as skinny and plain, and then she goes to a banquet and suddenly she's all gleaming golden hair (in 1172? didn't women have to cover their hair?) and is suddenly beautiful.
Also the murder mystery seems quite exploitative and yet unsatisfying: there's enough gore and blood for the horror fans, and yet the perpetrator has been flagged from the start so there's not much mystery. I guess I also found it very unsatisfying that there was no attempt to understand why the guilty parties had done what they did, and playing the 'madness' card seemed like a cop-out to me.
As another reviewer has said, the tone felt all wrong and dislocated to me: almost like Scarpetta in medieval Cambridge, with her spiky personality, forensic skills and hidden vulnerabilities.
There were also great swathes of stuff that was simply show-casing research that had absolutely no bearing on the story in hand, something that Norman has never been guilty of in her other novels.
So, for me, a sad disappointment. I will read the follow-up, The Death Maze, from the library as the plot-line (finding the murderer of Rosamund Clifford, Henry II's mistress) seems far more intriguing and hope that Norman's back to her more subtle and nuanced best.
on 22 April 2015
I will say I am an avid reader of crime fiction of all sorts, and that historical crime fiction has a very special place in my heart. And as far as this one goes, it is a thoroughly enjoyable instance of its genre, at least if you are more interested in the fiction part of the equation.
Let's face it. As far as the historicity goes, there are mistakes (which you can find in other reviews) and I can totally see how they can spoil one's enjoyment if the one in question is an expert - after all, as an engineer, my fun with books and literature is often spoiled by poor science in much similar manner. However, the casual reader won't notice much of the /really/ wrong things (I sure didn't), and everything else is quite well supported by the story. By this I mean that while Adelia does certainly have some knowledge that one could deem anachronistic (and it most likely is), the bits and pieces in question are purely empirical, which makes the possibility that she and a few others from Salerno outpaced their age plausible - which is all that suspension of disbelief requires, at least of me. For instance, the fact that cleaning out wounds is a way to prevent infection, or the somewhat more advanced "understanding" of cholera. Perhaps the only instance where the author let her imagination run a little wild was the CSI style body farm, done with pigs, that the medical college's master ran. And even that isn't so much a problem of the farm itself, as the fact that Adelia somehow recalled the mental portrayal of a decaying pig from the correct enviroment and came to the conclusion the body could have been dead for up to a month shorter than the time since the disappearance. Like, come on, that kind of memory is silly it wasn't even crucial to the case.
Secondly, let's say something about the characters. The way the book handles them is, in my opinion like watching a man walk across a tightrope, then do a couple saltos in jubilation. Over the beginning sections of the book, the whole thing was hovering over a precipice, one that a couple reviewers here and elsewhere have pointed out - specifically that Adelia sounds anachronistically 21st century in her views and sensibilities, and all sorts of things that drag on from that.
Fortunately, that's not the case. Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortega Aguilar has a list of flaws almost as long as her name, and such is the saving grace of the book. She's somewhat asocial, haughty, occassionally hypocritical and whiney, and ultimately, as much of a product of her own variant of medieval upbringing as those around her are of theirs. Asides from making her relateable (One of the quite neat things was near the end of the book - when in mortal danger, her strongest and for a while only impulse was to save herself rather than your usual brand of heroic selfless thought.), it gives the final pinch of legitimacy her views needed. When I hear Adelia's mental rant about the evils of religion, I can accept it as the attitude of a foundling raised by an (at home) vocally apostate jewish medic, rather than an author's rant, because a few pages later she will express irritation at her servants not knowing their place and lacking manners (a result of being raised in a 'civillized' sicilian household) with equal conviction. The same goes for her attitudes on women's place in society, capital punishment, cleanliness, and a hundred other topics - while they certainly aren't the attitudes of an average medieval person, they might as well be the ones of a person with her sort of a personal history. This sort of characterization applies to Rowley/ Sir Roland Picot as well - he has his better and worse traits, is a complete ass at times, but ultimately, remains an endearing character, much as Adelia herself had found him to be. The romance subplot wasn't something I found bothersome or artificial either - her genuine appreciation for him comes about only after she comes to know certain features of his character that impress her perhaps against her best judgement, but still.
Finally, as for the plot - I don't know whether the fact that I was able to guess the perpetrator from quite a while before was a good or a bad thing, however, I found the resolution to be well supported and believable, never mind that it dodged a certain tired cliche I was quite afraid it will descend into. I won't say anything more so as not to spoil it, but I will say that this was another thing that made Adelia bearable and likeable - she can, and often is, wrong in her conclusions.
Overall, this was an excellent and quite fast-paced read that I finished in two days. Would recommend
on 29 January 2014
Medieval mysteries are my favourite read and I've read some of the usual suspects that write this genre.
Mistress of the Art of Death is the first book of Ariana Franklin that I have read and, so far (halfway through), I am enjoying it. Yes, there are some glaring errors but not all errors stated in reviews are accurate: forensics was studied in medieval times (albeit in secrecy to avoid being accused of heresy); prior to the rise of Christianity as promoted by Rome, women did hold positions of power, skill and influence so it is quite likely that in some areas of the globe (and in few numbers), this continued to be the case.
The book makes me smile with the manner in which it is written, it is often quite humorous which helps to offset the storyline concerned.
I removed one star from the rating because of some inaccuracies - namely the whole germ thing did bug me a little: this was not 'discovered' by Pasteur (as stated elsewhere), it was identfied by John Snow circa 1854 (Pasteur's work (late 1850s), showing that milk soured due to living organisms, verified Snow's assertion regarding the 'germ theory'). The reference to salad was a bit daft too.
I suppose whether or not you choose to read the book depends on how hung up you get about historical accuracy: do you read the book purely for historical facts or to be entertained? If it's the former, maybe a straight history book would be a better choice as I'm sure many writers of a work of fiction will take advantage of poetic license now and again.
on 3 September 2011
In this first book if the "Mistress of the Art of Death" series, set in 12th-century England, the bodies of several murdered children have been discovered in Cambridge. The Jews are blamed, and are being persecuted by the locals. This troubles the King, Henry II, who is rather fond of the Jews, mostly because they pay him a lot in taxes. He calls for the King of Sicily, a land advanced in forensic medicine, to send him a "master of the art of death", someone who can study the children's bodies to determine what happened to them. The King of Sicily sends his best forensic expert, but the "master" is a "mistress" - a woman doctor from the Salerno School of Medicine, one of the few such schools enlightened enough in those days to admit female students.
Adelia is skilled at what she does, but she finds England a primitive, unenlightened place, where women with unusual skills are persecuted as witches. In the interests of her own safety, she and her travelling companion,the Arab Mansur, concoct a plan: he will pretend to be the doctor, and claim to not speak English, so when he allegedly studies the patient she will translate for him, thus requiring her presence at the scene without arousing suspicion.
The author's descriptions make medieval England come alive, and Henry II, who appears as a character, seems impressively accurate - an arrogant man, clearly accustomed to giving orders and having them obeyed, yet more comfortable hunting than politicking, and for all his flaws he comes across as something of an egalitarian - respecting people skillled in their craft, regardless of race, creed or gender. So it comes to pass that Adelia impresses him with her ability to `speak' to corpses and when she covers the true murderer of the children, Henry decides she must remain in England so that he can call on her again in the future.
I am fond of strong female characters, and although the unenlightened age of medieval England did not exactly encourage independent-minded women, Adelia comes across as a realistic and appealing character, doing her best to find a place in this strange and primitive land where she doesn't belong.