Sunday, November 02, 2008

The Serpent's Tale by Ariana Franklin

In twelfth-century England, one remarkable woman is trained to uncover the final secrets of the dead.

Rosamund Clifford, the mistress of King Henry II, has died an agonising death by poison - and the king's estranged queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, is the prime suspect. Henry suspects that Rosamund's murder is the first move in Eleanor's long-simmering plot to overthrow him. If Eleanor is guilty, the result could be civil war. The king must once again summon Adelia Aguilar, mistress of the art of death, to uncover the truth.

Adelia is not happy to be called out of retirement. She has been living contentedly in the countryside, caring for her infant daughter. But Henry's summons can not be ignored, and Adelia must again join forces with the king's trusted fixer, Rowley Picot, the Bishop of Saint Albans, who is also her baby's father.

Adelia and Rowley travel to the murdered courtesan's home, a tower within a walled maze - a strange and sinister place from the outside, where a bizarre and gruesome discovery awaits them. But Adelia's investigation is cut short by the appearance of Rosamund's rival: Queen Eleanor. Adelia, Rowley, and the other members of her small party are taken to the nunnery in Godstow, where Eleanor is holed up for the winter with her band of mercenaries.

Isolated and trapped inside the nunnery by the snow and cold, Adelia watchs as dead bodies begin piling up. The murders are somehow connected with Rosamund's demise. Adelia knows that there may be more than one killer at work, and she must unveil their true identities before England is once again plunged into civil war.
It's fair to say that I really enjoy the work of British author Diana Norman, whether we are talking about the straight historical novels that she publishes under that name, or the historical mysteries that she has started to write under the pen name of Ariana Franklin.

With the character of Adelia Aguilar, we have a character who can take us to the heart of a medieval murder, in the same way that we can see when we watch TV series like CSI. She has been specially trained in the medical schools of Italy to investigate the hows and whys of peoples deaths. In the previous book in the series (Mistress of the Art of Death), Adelia found herself in King Henry II's England, and with this book she is summoned again by the king himself to investigate and see whether his beloved mistress, Rosamund Clifford, may have been murdered, even though she lives in a tower in the middle of a barely accessible maze.

What complicates the investigation this time is that Adelia not only has to look after her own safety, and the safety of her friends, but also that of her daughter. She is being accompanied during her investigation Rowley Picot, a man of many masks - the King's trusted fixer, Bishop, Adelia's ex lover, and father of her child.

For me, one of the strongest parts of this novel was when all the characters were snowed in together for a good length of time. With everyone eager to impress Queen Eleanor who has unexpectedly arrived, and who is looking to start an uprising against her husband for her own reasons, life in a small community is difficult enough, let alone when you are trying to investigate a crime, and keep the Queen happy at the same time.

There is less of the investigation aspect used in this novel, and more interaction with the other characters, most of them have more than one agenda. As the body count grows, Adelia must protect her people, untangle the complicated relationships, and find the murderers of a several people.

I know that there are people who have read the first novel for whom the relationship with Rowley didn't really work, but it really doesn't bother me. I like that there is a chance for Adelia to be loved for the strong and intelligent woman that she is, even if it is a love that has to be constrained by time, distance and circumstance. It probably helps that I like Rowley a lot.

Overall, another fun read, from a fine historical author. I look forward to reading Grave Goods, the third book in the series, which is due to be released in March 2009. It is probably worth mentioning that this book has also been released under a different title in some countries - Death Maze.

This is one of the books that I nominated to read as part of the Pub08 Reading Challenge. I am also using it as one of my books for the Medieval Challenge.

As always, if you have reviewed this book, then please leave a comment and I will add your link to my review so that others can read a variety of opinions about this book.

Cross posted at Historical Tapestry


  1. I will try this book. I love to read stories in a medieval setting. I just finished reading "Company of Liars", and I have to say that I was disappointed. I found it to be a bit shallow and aimless.

  2. I certainly enjoyed Mistress of the Art of Death (although I found the murder description grisly) so I 'm sure I'd like this one too.
    Life was tough and gritty for the average person in this time period. I enjoyed reading your review. And thank you for the warning about the alternate title. I think I've discovered new books quite often and the online booksellers don't warn you that it's the same book.

  3. This does sound good, Marg. Thank you for the great review. I haven't yet read the first book in the series, but I hope to sometime next year.

  4. I love the idea of a book set in this time period!