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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 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 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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VINE VOICEon 8 March 2011
Mistress of the Art of Death is the first in a series of medieval historical mysteries by the late Ariana Franklin.

This book has an unusual heroine. Her name is Adelia Aguilar and she is a trained doctor, very rare in the year 1171. Adelia is from Salerno, where women are allowed to attend medical school. Her speciality, however, is as a 'doctor of the dead' - in other words, she is skilled in performing autopsies and finding out the causes of death. When several young children go missing in Cambridge and the city's Jews are blamed for the disappearances, Adelia is sent to England to investigate.

I love reading about medieval history and Franklin touches on many different aspects of the period - from the big things, such as the relationship between the church and the monarchy, to the small, such as the clothes people wore and the food they ate. Adelia, being Italian, is unfamiliar with the politics and customs of 12th century England, which allows the reader to learn along with her - so no need to worry if you don't have much knowledge of the period. Despite some very modern dialogue and Adelia's distinctly 21st century thought processes, everything else felt suitably 'medieval'. Setting and atmosphere are so important in fiction and this is an area in which I thought Franklin excelled. It wouldn't really be fair for me to comment on the historical accuracy as I haven't studied the 12th century in any detail but I would say that if you're looking for a serious piece of historical fiction which is correct in every detail then you need to look elsewhere. Accept this book for what it is though, and it's an enjoyable read.

The writing in the prologue and opening chapters feels quite light and humorous and I expected the whole book to have the same tone, but when Adelia begins to investigate the mystery things start to feel a lot darker. I should point out that the story does revolve around the abduction and murder of children which isn't nice to read about; it's quite graphic in places and a bit disturbing. As for the mystery itself, I didn't guess who the murderer was, but then I wasn't really trying to guess. Sometimes I prefer not to attempt to work things out and just enjoy the story - and this was one of those occasions.

I found Adelia a fascinating and engaging character although, as I mentioned earlier, she thought, spoke and behaved more like a woman from the 21st century than the 12th. She's a strong, independent person who is constantly questioning the role of women in society and has a very modern outlook on medicine, the law and life in general; I liked her but she wasn't a believable medieval woman. Most of the secondary characters are well-rounded and interesting, particularly Adelia's housekeeper, Gyltha, and her grandson, Ulf - and I loved the depiction of Henry II.

I enjoyed Mistress of the Art of Death and I look forward to being reacquainted with Adelia Aguilar in the other three books in the series.
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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.
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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
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VINE VOICEon 3 December 2010
Very readable historical murder mystery featuring likeable and interesting investigators.

Although the set up of this well plotted novel strikes me as rather unlikely..surely there must have been competent investigators closer to Cambridge than Salerno, even in the year 1170..there is nothing actually impossible about the events described. With Jewish and Arab investigators called to Cambridge(to say nothing of the fact that one of the detectives is a woman) we see an unexpectedly cosmopolitan, even multi-cultural side to the Middle Ages. To be fair, the masses of the city are shown as largely intolerant but even so the overall impression given is more 1980s social inclusion than medieval fundamentalism.

The first half of this book is a rather uninvolving CSI: Medieval England style investigation, largely built around very modern-sounding autopsies. The second half, after a dramatic development(p.265) becomes much more personal and involving. After this, the search for the murderer feels more pressing, and the investigation proceeds at a much faster pace. Ariana Franklin is a clever writer and highlights this change herself slyly commenting on her own style (p,286 "She...had been ...above the action...")

The story does not end with the identification of the murderer, but contines with a trial, probably the strongest scene in the book. A very unexpected defence of Henry 2nd, one of the less revered of English monarchs, closes this highly enjoyable novel.

Adelia Aguilar is a memorable and sympathetic protagonist and it is unsurprising she features in further volumes.
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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.

Thoroughly recommended.
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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 31 March 2011
In the first of a series of novels featuring Adelia, we are introduced to this woman from Solerno, Italy who has come to England to help find the killer of several children without disclosing the fact that she's a real doctor. It wasn't easy for her but she understood peoples superstitions and was careful not to be regarded as a witch.

Adelia Aguilar is now one of my favourite historical characters, she's a woman in a man's world, way ahead of her time, intelligent, witty, independent and obsessed with the dead and what their bodies tell her.....and she's not afraid of speaking her mind!

I thought the storyline was compelling .... there was a little romance ... some gruesome details describing the childrens deaths and their injuries ...... some wonderful warm and quirky characters, especially Gyltha the cook and housekeeper who is a big softy despite her rough exterior ...... a few nasty characters ...... a good steady build up to the killers identity, which I didn't guess...... all simply told.

I would recommend this one for all medieval murder mystery fans.
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