Adelia is back in this thrilling fourth installment of the Mistress of the Art of Death seriesHaving spent a couple of years living in relative obscurity, happily raising her daughter, sharing her home with her friends and when possible spending time with her lover, Rowley, Adelia Aguilar is not best pleased when she is summoned by King Henry II. He has a task for her. She has been chosen to accompany the King's young daughter Joanna from England to her wedding in Sicily. Also in the party is Rowley and her Arab companion Mansur but her daughter is going to be lodging with Queen Eleanor, both for her development, but also as surety that Adelia will return to England.
In 1176, King Henry II sends his ten-year-old daughter, Joanna, to Palermo to marry William II of Sicily. War on the Continent and outbreaks of plague make it an especially dangerous journey, so the king selects as his daughter’s companion the woman he trusts most: Adelia Aguilar, his mistress of the art of death. As a medical doctor and native of Sicily, it will be Adelia’s job to travel with the princess and safeguarding her health until the wedding.
Adelia wants to refuse—accompanying the royal procession means leaving behind her nine-year-old daughter. Unfortunately, Henry has arranged for the girl to live at court, both as a royal ward and as a hostage to ensure that Adelia will return to the king’s service. So Adelia sets off for a yearlong royal procession. Accompanying her on the journey are her Arab companion, Mansur, her lover, Rowley, and an unusual newcomer: the Irish sea captain O’Donnell, who may prove more useful to Adelia than Rowley would like.
But another man has joined the procession—a murderer bent on the worst kind of revenge. When people in the princess’s household begin to die, Adelia and Rowley suspect that the killer is hiding in plain sight. Is his intended victim the princess . . . or Adelia herself?
The journey itself is dangerous. The procession goes through France, to Aquitaine, through the Languedoc region where the Cathar heresy is spreading and so is the Church's eagerness and enthusiasm in squashing that faith, and then onto Sicily. Along the way the young princess is accompanied by a large party. There are her servants, her ladies in waiting, the requisite churchmen, a few knights and soldiers. For different parts of the journey we also get glimpses of her brothers, Young Henry and Richard, who is now most famously known as Richard the Lionheart. We also spend time in the court at Aquitaine, famous for courtly love and also in the inhospitable mountains of the Languedoc region of France where Adelia comes into contact with two Cathar women and very nearly finds herself being treated as one.
In keeping with the attitudes of the time, Mansur and Adelia are mistrusted by many of their travelling companions, especially after some of their travelling companions begin to be murdered. It isn't clear though exactly who it is that is the target. Is it the princess? Is it someone who is hoping to steal the priceless treasure that is travelling with the party, or is it someone who is targeting Adelia herself?
I never thought I would find myself saying this about a Ariana Franklin/Diana Norman novel, but I didn't really enjoy this one that much.There are a number of reasons why.
The first is that the author used quite an unusual technique in that where ever we were inside the thoughts of the characters then those thoughts were italicised. No great drama there, except that we spent the majority of time inside the thoughts of Scarry, who is the villain of the piece but then we were following Adelia's thoughts, and then back to Scarry. At one point, I was waiting for us to get a glimpse into the thoughts of the dog. And yes, we know the whole time through the book who the villain is. What we don't know is who he is disguised as and what role he has within the travelling party. That mystery in itself is not too badly handled.
The second is that I didn't like Rowley as much as I usually do. I have liked Rowley in the previous books with his unusual mix of knight and churchman sensibilities. Here is a man who is in love with a woman but is restricted from being able to be with her because he was appointed to a role within the church and because of her occupation and beliefs. In this book he has morphed into a jealous and domineering lover (and yes, you are reminded repeatedly that he and Adelia are lovers). It is difficult for Adelia and Rowley because he is a church man and therefore can not be seen to have a lover and so they are forced to stay away from one another during the procession, but at one stop on their journey he hires a room for them, and basically on arrival he walks in and says " Renting this hovel is costing me a fortune. Now get your clothes off." Yes, he was always a man's man with man's needs but it just didn't feel to me as though this is the way that Rowley would have spoken to Adelia in the previous books.
Adelia was also a bit more petulant than she normally seemed to be to me, often being angry with Rowley and Mansur and not speaking to them etc. Admittedly everyone around her seemed to know what was happening to her and they did their best to make sure that she didn't know which annoyed her, but still. I didn't like this aspect of her character.
I am not sure if it is that I am not remembering this from the previous books but it seems to me that this book was a lot coarser than the earlier books in the series. For example, at one point the Bishop of Avergnon is imagining the burning at the stake of a Cathar woman and the description given is:
When Gerhardt had gone, his lord poured himself another glass of the vintage from his vineyard near Carcassonne and sipped it while he engineered a new vision of Ermengarde his black-clad tauntress, this time tied to a stake with faggots laid around her feet.
He saw himself thrusting a torch into the wood like a penis into her parts and sighed because, alas, that pleasure must be left to the executioner. One day, though, yes, yes, one day, the flames he'd light would consume them all...men, women, and children.
This really was most excellent wine.
There were also a number of new characters introduced from a new maid named Boggart, and the charismatic, charming, almost swashbuckling captain O'Donnell. I am not sure what the purpose of introducing O'Donnell was really. I liked O'Donnell a lot, and I would be happy to read more about him, but without giving too much away it almost seemed as though it was an unfulfilled attempt at a love triangle. I suspect though that we will see more of O'Donnell in future books in the series, which may give us more insight into what the author was trying to achieve.
In no way am I suggesting that I am giving up on this author, because I have enjoyed far too many of her books over the last few years to let one disappointment get in my way. I might be a little more wary though when I start the next book.
This book is my August read for the Year of the Historical, and I am also potentially counting it as a read for the French Historical challenge, simply because a lot of the book was set in France, and we see the beginnings of one of the major events for France - the persecution of the Cathars that led to the only crusade on European soil.