Tag Archives: religion

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.

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

pillars of the earth cover

There are tons of covers for this book. This one is my favorite. 

You wouldn’t think a book about building a cathedral would pull you in and refuse to let you go. The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett did exactly that. The novel follows a large cast of characters though 12th-century England as they struggle with war, famine, corrupt rulers, rape. accusations of witchcraft, death, poverty, and ultimately the decades-long task of of building a stunning cathedral.

This is a very difficult book to sum up because it is extremely long – over 900 pages – and spans the lifetime of several characters, whose difficulties and growth I would hate to give away. I will say all the characters are beautifully written and exquisitely human, each with talents and flaws, and who make decisions that make the reader love and hate them equally. There is a character for everyone – the feminist who overcomes severe adversity to make a name for herself without the help of a man, the strong independent woman accused of witchcraft who lives in the forest, the religious monk who constantly finds himself between what his religion teaches and what society demands, the corrupt bishop who manipulates all those around him for his own gain, the father who struggles to raise his children on his own, the child who must choose whether to follow his parent’s footsteps or strike out on his own. Finally, there is a spectacular villain, you spend the entire novel gleefully hating and waiting for karma to catch up to him.

In addition to a fabulous cast of characters, the novel presents a detailed account of life in 12th-century England, in which travelers would die on the road if they came across bandits, families starved if they couldn’t find work, earls were free to do as they pleased to those in their power with no oversight, religion and royalty fought to determine who was really in charge. And the idea of these uneducated (even then, and certainly by our current standards) peasants building a magnificent cathedral without any of the machinery we are familiar with today was particularly impressive.

On his website ken-follett.com, author Ken Follett notes that the cathedral in his novel is fiction, but he drew inspiration from two real-like cathedrals in his writing, the Wells Cathedral and the Salisbury Cathedral, pictured here to give an idea of what these amazing people were capable of before electricity.

My only, albeit very small, gripe with this novel was that as fascinating as it was learning the minutiae of building a cathedral, I just wasn’t that interested in it, and I occasionally skimmed through some details about building plans. The novel did feel a bit long at points, but on the other hand was so enthralling that when it was over I wanted more, so ultimately no complaints about the length.

I give this book a rare 5 out 5 stars, and recommend it to anyone interested in historical fiction. Truthfully, I recommend it to everyone. There is something in this novel for every reader to enjoy, and I like Follett’s writing style enough that I now plan to seek out some of his other works.

PS – There’s a sequel! It’s called World Without End and apparently occurs in the same location two centuries later, during the Black Death. I will be reading it ASAP.

Showdown by Ted Dekker

This book was pitched as the ultimate showdown between good and evil. Except it wasn’t. It was more about mind control and people who thought their intelligence gave them the right to play God.

There were two main settings to the book. Paradise, a tiny town of about 400 or so people in the mountains of Colorado. And the Monastery, hidden in the mountains outside Paradise, and home to a bunch of brilliant young showdownchildren, wise beyond their years, who are being taught all about love by a group of very smart adults with the eventual goal of “changing the world.” Eventually you, the reader, find out that hidden in the basement of this monastery are a bunch of blank books – whatever you write in the books becomes reality, but you can only write in the books if you have childlike innocence, or something along those lines. Hence, the discoverer of the books sets up the monastery with the intention of raising a bunch of brilliant kids who will write only positive, wonderful things in these books and make the world a better place. What could possibly go wrong?

Turns out just about everything can go wrong. A rogue teacher (because there’s always one, isn’t there?) encourages a student to seek out the books. The student discovers its way more fun to write stories filled with evil and violence than with love, and once he realizes everything he writes in the book is happening in real life, he gleefully turns Paradise into hell. And now, for the SPOILERS

Of course there is one student in the monastery who isn’t taken in by thoughts of doing evil, and with his father, the head of the monastery,¬†writes in one of the books and tries to turn things around. This plan fails, he eventually this child goes down to the town and sacrifices himself to save the townspeople. The father, who is suddenly able to write in the books, unlike every other adult ever, manages to resurrect his son and fix the town. I don’t suppose this story sounds familiar to anyone, does it?

I guess I had trouble buying in to this story. Not only was I not convinced a bunch of thirteen year-olds would immediately abandon everything they had been taught and mindlessly write terrifying evil, there was also this magic, hallucinogenic “worm gel” involved, that the students found in the dungeons with the books and which made them sick but was addictive…and yeah, was never explained fully. And all the while the rest of the supposedly brilliant adults in the monastery could just do nothing? Really?? And the sacrifice of the perfect son to save the town was just too on-the-nose for me.

In the end, I just don’t think Ted Dekker is an author for me. I always think the synopsis of his books sound great, but then when I read them they are too concerned with religious symbolism and parallels for my taste. I give this book 2 out of 5 stars, but do recommend it for those who like science fiction with lots of religious overtones thrown in.

Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers

Grave Mercy coverOn the night of her arranged marriage, Ismae is spirited away from her abusive husband and father by the village priest and hedgewitch. Fearing Ismae for the mark of death she wears almost as much as they fear her father, they do not even tell Ismae where they are taking her until they drop her off at the Abby of St. Mortain, old-god of Death. There Ismae is offered a choice: she, a young woman whose scars prove she is the daughter of Death himself, can be trained as an assassin. Or she can die of the poison she has just ingested. Ismae survives the poison, which the abbess takes as proof of her lineage, and Ismae agrees to be trained as an assassin and learn to understand the will of Mortain. Ismae’s first major assignment takes her to the court of Anne, the young Duchess of Brittany. There, Ismae learns she is woefully under-prepared for the intrigue and political maneuvering at court. Additionally, despite the assurances of the nuns at her convent that she has learned everything she needs to know about seduction and the “ways of the heart,” Ismae finds herself falling desperately in love with a man the convent eventually orders her to kill. How will Ismae choose to deal with her new feelings? Will she be able to continue blindly following the orders from the convent, or will she make her own decisions about the will of Mortain?

This book wasn’t exactly what I expected. It was (theoretically) supposed to be about an assassin, but really it was about court politics. Boring court politics. I mean, there were parts of the story that were exciting. I thought Ismae was an interesting character who did a lot of learning about herself and the world around her. I also really liked Duval, and the way he interacted with Ismae. I would have liked some of the other characters to be more developed though, rather than reading so many minor details about the politics in the court. Like Beast and de Lornay. I felt they both had stories that I really wanted to know. There is a slight possibility Beast will make an appearance in the next novel, we don’t really know what happened to him even though it was implied, but I’m not holding my breath. There was some cute romance in this story too, but not enough in my opinion to really make it an important part of the story, which I think it was intended to be.

Overall, I enjoyed the story. There were sections where I couldn’t put it down. But once all was said and done, I didn’t feel super emotionally invested, and was left with a very “meh” feeling about the whole book. I want to read the next book in the series, I think they will improve, and I hope Ismae and Duval make an appearance in the next book. I think they both still have stories left to tell.

Happy reading,

-Branwen