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VINE VOICEon 27 April 2013
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.
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on 3 September 2017
Excellent story aqnd I have bought all the others and I will pass it on to my Mum. Shame Ariana died a few years ago so no more stories will be available.
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on 3 August 2017
Well written . Exciting. Have bought rest of series
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on 19 July 2017
Good condition and good price and a good story
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on 15 February 2011
I love historical fiction and I love crime fiction, so to find a well-written book of historical crime is a treat. The first historical crime I ever read, was one of Ellis Peters' Cadfael books. I'd stumbled across it at my local library and fell in love with it. Discovering Ms Franklin's Cambridge and meeting Adelia was a similar experience. I fell in love with this book and its characters and enjoyed every moment I spent with Mistress of the Art of Death.

Adelia is a great character, I loved her wry humour and her compassion. She might seem anachronistic and forward in her independence and frank way of speaking, but there truly were female doctors in Salerno and one would imagine that coming from such a background she would be more 'modern' (for lack of a better word) than the English women she's surrounded by in the book. At the same time she does conform to the age; an example of this is the fact she adamantly refuses to marry, knowing full well that to be married in the Middle Ages generally meant to lose any independence or autonomy a woman may have had.

Adelia forms an interesting and delightful trio with Simon of Naples and her Arabian companion Mansur. They arrive in Cambridge to investigate the murders and there are joined by several other great characters. Prior Geoffrey is a remarkable character, between calling the Prioress names you wouldn't expect from a priest and his past with Gyltha, he is a rather worldly cleric, but a wise and kindly one. Sir Rowley Picot, who keeps inserting himself into the investigation and is both of assistance and suspect. I adored Ulf; he was the perfect little imp, surly but loveable. And of course Gyltha, Ulf's grandmother and cook and housekeeper for the strange little household that Adelia, Simon and Mansur form. There are many more smaller characters and none of them are throwaway. They all have a place and a purpose, however small, to drive the narrative onward.

Mistress of the Art of Death does not just have great characters, but great writing as well. The narrative technique - the omniscient third person - made me wary at first, as it's been a long time since I read a work with an unlimited point of view. Sometimes switching between characters during dialogue is risky, as it can cause confusion, but it was handled very skilfully and works well here. Another concern it raised for me was how this omniscient narration would work in keeping the mystery mysterious. It worked very well. I guess it's all in the choosing of what to reveal, the fact that the narration is omniscient, doesn't mean the author has to tell us everything. Ms Franklin kept me guessing until the reveal of the culprit and still managed to surprise me! In addition, she also uses some beautiful imagery, such as the following fragment:

Adelia was aware that Cambridge piped to her, but she would not dance. To her, the double reflection of everything was symptomatic of a deeper duplicity, a Janus town, where a creature that killed children walked on two legs like any other man.


A sparrowhawk landed on the west window-sill and took off again, disturbed by the vibration inside the room as the sound of Simon's slap reverberated around the walls.

In Mistress of the Art of Death Ms Franklin depicts some of the unsavoury (to put it mildly) attitudes of the early Middle Ages. The biggest of these, and central to the book, is the subject of 12th century anti-Semitism and general xenophobia. She is unapologetic in its depiction, but at the same time shows the irrationality that's at the bottom of the town's prejudices.

Mistress of the Art of Death was a captivating read with an awesome and completely unexpected denouement, in all respects. Sadly, Ms Franklin passed away at the end of January this year, so there will be no more additions to the four books in her Mistress of the Art of Death series. I really want to read the other three books, but I guess I'll be spacing them out, so I'll have them to look forward to. If, like me, you haven't encountered the books of Ariana Franklin before, look for them on the shelves, because you've missed out on a rare treat!

This book was sent to me for review as part of the Great Transworld Crime Caper.
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on 18 February 2014
My reason for reading the novel was simple: I want to read the third in the series which is about Glastonbury, a favourite place of mine, and it is always best to start at the beginning, isn't it?
I found I was less bothered about who had committed the heinous crimes and more interested in Adelia, the Mistress of the Art of Death. She is a strong, flawed, intelligent young woman with real concern for her live patients and respect for the dead.
I was also entertained by the portrayal of Henry, the King, and by the people closest to Adelia, the housekeeper and her grandson.
I have the second book already and will probably consume all the Adelia novels as they offer an easy read when the other book by the bed at the moment is Joyce's ULYSSES!
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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.
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VINE VOICEon 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.
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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.
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on 10 September 2016
A friend gave me this book as a gift and I am so glad he did. It is a wonderful find, I shall read the series.
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