Sunday, May 27, 2007

Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin

In Cambridge, a child has been hideously murdered and other children have disappeared. The Jews, made scapegoats by the all-powerful Christian clergy, have been forced to retreat into the castle to avoid slaughter by angry townspeople.

Henry, King of England, is displeased. The Jews provide a large part of his revenue and therefore the real killer must be found, and quickly. A renowned investigator, Simon of Naples, is recruited and he arrives in town from the continent accompanied by an Arab and a young woman, Adelia Aguilar.

There are few female doctors in twelfth century Europe, but Adelia is one of them, having qualified at the great School of Medicine in Salerno. What's more, her speciality is the study of corpses; she is, in fact, a mistress of the art of death, a skill that must be concealed in case she's accused of witchcraft.

Adelia's investigation takes her deep into Cambridge, its castle and convents and in a medieval city teeming with life, Adelia makes friends and even finds romance. And, fatally, the attention of a murderer who is prepared to kill again.

As soon as I learned that the name Ariana Franklin was a pseudonym for Diana Norman, I added it to my TBR list! I did, however, have to wait a little while for it to come onto the library list but it did eventually! I was a bit worried that it wasn't going to because the first book written under this name (City of Shadows) still hasn't made it onto the catalogue! I am too impatient after reading this one...I've ordered it from The Book Depository (have I mentioned recently how much I love that is so much cheaper for me to buy books from there than it is to go into a bookstore here.)

A young boy is found murdered and because he was crucified before being found in the river, and now two more children are missing. The finger has been pointed at the Jews of Cambridge, the townspeople have revolted against them and now the Jews are sheltering in the castle. This situation doesn't make anyone happy - least of all the volatile King Henry II, who now not only has to feed all these people, but whose treasury is now falling woefully short of funds because the Jews are not paying him his share! Something must be done.

And so, at the behest of the King of Sicily, our main characters enter the story. He has agreed to send some investigators to help hopefully clear the name of the Cambridge Jews, to find out who the murderer really was, and to set matters to rights again. The group that is sent to England is an interesting one. There is Simon the Jew, Mansur the Saracen and a young female doctor by the name of Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar. Whilst a female doctor is not all that unusual in the medical schools of Salerno, it is unheard of in 12th century England, and steps have to be taken to make it appear as though Mansur is the doctor in order to ensure that there are no accusations of witchcraft. Even in Salerno Adelia is somewhat unusual though, because she is no ordinary doctor. She is a Mistress of the Art of Death, someone who looks at a body and tries to figure out how they died - performing an early kind of autopsy.

The book opens at a cracking pace, with all of the main characters, including our investigators, a prioress and a prior who never see eye to eye, a couple of crusader knights, the king's tax man all travelling together in convoy heading towards Cambridge. Unfortunately the prior has a very delicate problem. He is unable to urinate, and his bladder is in danger of bursting, so it is Adelia to the rescue, performing a very sensitive operation on the Prior, and thus ensuring that they have at least one person on their side once they get to Cambridge. Coincidentally, as the group arrive in the town, so the bodies of the other missing children turn up to, and so Adelia is able to commence her examinations.

It isn't long before the townspeople know that they have a new doctor in town, and so not only are the investigators required to try and determined how and why the children died, and who killed them, but also maintain the masquerade that Mansur is the doctor and Adelia is his assistant.

With the field of suspects narrowing, everyone is now in danger, and Adelia and her companions must decide who to trust, especially as she is feeling a growing attachment to one of the suspects, who is the King's tax man, Sir Rowley Picolt. The growing relationship between the two of them was deftly handled, without being completely cliched, and whilst the resolution may have been somewhat unusual and unlikely, it did suit the two characters involved.

With a great group of supporting characters, colourful descriptions of time and place, conflict between Church and state, between religions and between man and woman, there is a lot going on in this novel, but for the most part the author manages to keep all the threads in hand and neatly weaves them together for a very chilling showdown with the killer, and the resulting trials were very dramatic as well.

The characters that have been introduced in this book are certainly interesting and colourful, and would fit naturally in a series, so I was glad to hear that there is another Mistress book to come! No idea when it is coming..but just the fact that it is is enough for now!

Rating 4/5

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