Tag Archives: Mistress of the Art of Death

The Serpent’s Tale by Ariana Franklin

I rarely cheat and use Goodreads for my book summaries, but I just couldn’t figure out a way to summarize this one without giving too much away, so…

serpent's tale cover

Rosamund Clifford, the mistress of King Henry II, has died an agonizing death by poison—and the king’s estranged queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, is the prime suspect. Henry suspects that Rosamund’s murder is probably 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, Allie. But Henry’s summons cannot be ignored, and Adelia must again join forces with the king’s trusted fixer, Rowley Picot, the Bishop of St. Albans, who is also her baby’s father.

Adelia and Rowley travel to the murdered courtesan’s home, in a tower within a walled labyrinth—a strange and sinister place from the outside, but far more so on the inside, 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 captive by Eleanor’s henchmen and held in the nunnery of Godstow, where Eleanor is holed up for the winter with her band of mercenaries, awaiting the right moment to launch their rebellion.

Isolated and trapped inside the nunnery by the snow and cold, Adelia and Rowley watch as dead bodies begin piling up. 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 . . .

Basically, our favorite 12th-century forensic pathologist is back in action, only this time her action is complicated because 1) its winter, and in 1147(?) travel wasn’t easy in perfect weather, so imagine how much tougher it is in 4 feet of snow; 2) her friend, confidant, and all-around helper Rowley is now a bishop, an Important Person in court and in the Church so on top of everything else their relationship is changing; and 3) she has a BABY and running around solving murders when you need to take breaks for breastfeeding is tough for anyone, 12th-century or otherwise.

Much like the first book in this series, Mistress of the Art of Death (reviewed here!) Adelia is called on by King Henry to help solve a murder, only this time the murder is connected to the royal court and the identity of the murderer could lead to war. I like these books, not just because I like historical fiction, but because I like Adelia. She wants to be strong and independent and most of the time she is successful, impressive for a time period when any woman with an ounce of brains was accused of witchcraft and executed. Yet she also struggles with things like balancing her work and motherhood, her faith – whether she has any at all, and if she does, what exactly does she believe in? She’s imperfect, and despite her sometimes abrasive manners and foolish decisions, she’s likable and as a reader you are on her side.

I missed Rowley a bit in this novel. He wasn’t as involved as he was in the first book, and when he was, his character began to change and grow due to his new position as bishop. I wouldn’t say he is a favorite character by any means, but his interplay with Adelia was fun and I wanted more. We did see more of Adelia’s relationship with her friend Glytha (I think that’s the correct spelling of her name – I made a dumb move and returned the book to the library before writing my review to avoid fines, haha). Anyway, Glytha is matronly and well-grounded in common sense, and she’s a good balance to Adelia’s impulsive and sometimes pig-headed nature. I like her, and enjoy reading about her.

There was definitely more court intrigue in this novel, including a long, detailed scene with Adelia interacting with King Henry. He’s a smart, progressive ruler who could be much more of a jerk than he chooses to be. His queen and children are in the novel as well, so if historical fiction with Royal Drama is your thing, you will like this novel.

Finally, I wasn’t able to figure out who the murderer was before the characters in the novel, which was great. I was surprised and pleased with the twist ending. While I didn’t love this book quite as much as the first, I still give it 3.5 stars out of 5, and recommend it to fans of historical fiction and mystery novels.

Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin

mistress of the art of death coverAdelia is a forensic pathologist, a doctor who studies corpses to discover the cause of death. Alone, this isn’t a shocking or particularly special characteristic. When you add “in 12th-century England” it becomes much, much more interesting. Adelia trained to become a doctor in Salerno, Italy, a quite progressive town for the mid-1100’s, not only because the people who live there know so much about medicine, but because they trained a female doctor. Adelia is even more of an oddity because her particular field of study – that of death. While she is respected by those in the medical profession in Salerno, she is still so unique that her foster father must take credit for her work. Thus it becomes a shock for absolutely everyone when Adelia is the “death doctor” chosen to fulfill the King of England’s request for a doctor to help the determine the cause of death of the several children in Cambridge.

I was intrigued by this novel before reading it. The idea of a “death doctor” in the 12th Century was enough to make me want to pick up this book – the fact that the lead character was a woman made me even more interested, and I was not disappointed. Adelia is a strong, independent, and brilliant young woman. She is faced with an exceptionally difficult task, taking a long journey to England, a country that is much more conservative, and practically even backwards by the standards of Salerno that she is accustomed to. Her servant and dear friend dies on the journey. She must pretend her other servant is really the doctor, as female doctors in England are unheard of, and she would be accused of witchcraft and executed. Not to mention she’s living in a time period where women are considered property of their man, and without a man are regularly taken advantage of. Adelia faces her challenges with her head held high and never backs down from those who consider themselves her betters. She makes mistakes as she learns her way, but she learns from them, and this only makes her more human and relate-able.

Some other reviewers complained about Adelia’s indecision about her belief system. At times she rejected religion, and at other times prayed and called upon God, Allah, or whoever came to mind at the time. I found this understandable rather than obnoxious. Adelia comes from a place where science and medicine are appreciated and practically worshiped, which does not often lend itself to belief in a higher power. Traveling to England, she finds herself in a location where God is the ultimate power, believed to be the only thing that can take pain away, and any sort of science or medicine is not just disbelieved, but frowned upon and reviled. Being surrounded by these varying ideologies, it only makes sense that Adelia would question and at times change her views.

There was some romance in the novel, but it was not essential to the plot and did not distract from the story in any way. Most of the supporting characters were well-written and had their own depth and backstory. I enjoyed the history in the novel as well. I recently read Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, and noticed Kind Henry II and some other events in this novel were similar to those in Follett’s novel, which took place about 100 years later. Had I not read Pillars so recently, I would not have noticed, and while this might bother the more historical minded, it didn’t effect my enjoyment of the story. I am looking forward to A Serpent’s Tale, the next book in the series.

I give the novel 4 out of 5 stars, and recommend it to fans of mystery and historical fiction.