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A tale set in the 12th century with a very modern heroine
on 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.