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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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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 16 November 2008
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.
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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.
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on 11 August 2009
A boy is found murdered on the bottom of the river, those who saw the body say he was crucified, there's a witness who swears she saw him hanging from a cross at a prominent Jew's house, while a wedding was taking place. It's the Easter season and rumour has it that Jews sacrifice Christian children in their celebration rituals, so of course the village people turn against the Jews, and after murdering the couple at whose house the body was seen, they force the rest of them to take shelter at Cambridge's castle.

A year has passed and three other children go missing, despite the fact that the Jews are still locked up in the castle, the village people still believe they're the guilty party, some even say they have grown wings and fly out over the castle walls to abduct the children. Henry II is not at all pleased over these events, not because he has any personal friends among the Jews but because most of his taxes come from them, and now that they're locked up, there's no incoming taxes and he has to feed them all, on top of that. So he decides to hire someone to investigate the murders and if possible, help clear the name of the Jews.

Adelia Aguilar is a mistress of the art of death, something of a coroner in the 12th century, she's a woman doctor, something that is common in Salerno where she comes from but is totally unheard of in Cambridge, if her true identity was found she'd probably be labelled as a witch. Not wanting to draw too much attention to themselves while investigating the crimes, Adelia and her companions, Simon Menahem and Mansur, try to pass as doctor Mansur and his assistants, as a man doctor wasn't uncommon in those days, if though rare.

They arrive in town among a group of pilgrims that come from a visit to St. Thomas Beckett, we find out later that these people are the main suspects for the crimes, one of them is our gruesome serial killer. The only problem is to find out which one of them has a heart carved in ice!

This book grabs you from the start, the plot is extremely well weaved, the historical background if not entirely accurate is still believable and interesting and the characters are one of the best I've seen lately, especially Adelia with her strong character, her wry humour and clever repartees, she made me laugh out loud in certain scenes, I still remember the conversation between her and prior Geoffrey before a very "delicate" operation. The author manages to write fluidly, there was never a dull moment in the story, no matter what she was describing. And the ending was perfect, it's a little sadistic but the "mosquito" deserved it, and Adelia got her happy ending, maybe not a conventional one but you wouldn't expect anything else from a woman like her.

Be warned that there are a couple of very graphical scenes, so if you're faint of heart, this is probably not the book for you. But everyone else that enjoys a good mystery, be sure to pick this one up, and it's only the start of a series. Oh joy! ;-)
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on 2 April 2008
I decided to give this one a go after becoming addicted to another series set in medieval Cambridge, the Chronicles of Matthew Bartholomew by Susanna Gregory. After enjoying the Bartholomew Chronicles so much, this book was always going to have its work cut out to come anywhere near competing. Having just finished it - I am happy to say that it does! The author's research into the period is clearly infallible and the fenland town is recreated for the reader in vivid and accurate detail.

There are some really enjoyable characters in the book and the character development of the leading lady is superb.

I am reluctant to give this book less than five stars because the end product itself is brilliant. However, I gave it four purely for the fact that it did take me quite a bit of effort to get into it. It starts at a fairly steady pace and takes a quite a while to get warmed up and drag the reader into the main thrust of the story.

However, I would urge any other readers that find this to stick with it and see the book through as it is an amazing story and well worth the initial ground work of the first few chapters.

I will defiantly be purchasing Franklin's next venture with Adelia.
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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!
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on 12 November 2009
There might be great holes in the historical detail but these books are damned good fun. Great characters and plot, all told with drive and humour. I love the dogs. The historical side could be much worse. At least, so far, we've been spared mysticism and new age pseudo-history.

So, as another reviewer says, leave all that to one side and just enjoy as entertainment. If you want researched historical detail then read books and papers by academic historians.
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VINE VOICEon 9 July 2010
Some Amazon reviewers have spent some time discussing the historical accuracy or otherwise of Ariana Franklin's books in her series, "Mistress of the Art of Death". I have read three in the series so far and I feel a debate about history misses the point. If readers want history there are wonderful books by Professors Robert Bartlett and David Carpenter that cover the Twelfth century - the period in which Franklin's plots are set. Ariana Franklin offers good stories which possess real excitement, strong and memorable characters, landscapes that are well observed: whether the Cambridgeshire flatlands, the Thames Valley or the Somerset Levels, where her stories are set, and snappy - and often very funny - dialogue. There is sufficient historical detail to give these books colour, a sense of time and place, and a distinctive flavour. Of course there are anachronisms. The central character, Adelia, possesses a modern outlook - she is a woman of our own time. But this outlook is essential and provides the reader with a kind of telescope through which we are able to view a distant time that otherwise would seem almost incomprehensible.

Oh I almost forgot to say, these books are highly enjoyable, convincing and very well written.
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