Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Book 72: Mistress of the Art of Death

Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin

I've read one other novel by Ariana Franklin which I remembered as a pleasant historical suspence/thriller. I'd also been interested in this one when I picked up the other one, but I hadn't wanted to buy two novels by an unknown author at once, and then I kind of forgot about her with all the other novels I wanted to read. When I happened upon this in a bookstore recently, I figured it should at the least be entertaining.

This novel takes place in 12th century England, which is under the reign of Henry II, notoriously remembered in history for killing the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, and also overshadowed by his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, when it comes to romantic figures in history. Four children have gone missing in the Cambridge area, and as so often happened in the Middle Ages, the blame and anger of the area's citizens falls on the Jews. They are taken under the king's protection and shut into one of his castles in the area, but the lack of revenues makes Henry rather unhappy. After all, taxing the Jews is rather profitable, and if they can't work, he can't exactly tax them.

At the request of the King of Sicily, the famed medical school in Salerno, which teaches men and women, sends a doctor to the dead (basically, a doctor that does autopsies) to help in the investigation that will be led by Simon, one of the King's top investigators - the man in charge of the school chooses to send Adelia, not taking into consideration the sexism and superstition that exist within medieval England. In order to gain access to many of the places she needs and to prevent suspicion, she must pretend to be the assistant of her Muslim eunuch manservant, Mansur. As a doctor, the extreme superstition in her new surroundings excaberates her, such as the idea that a handkerchief wiped in a decaying, soon-to-be saint's dead body and applying that to the eyes could prevent blindness. All it does of course is cause an infection. This also means that her work, or Mansur's work as the community believes, is looked at oddly and in some cases frowned upon or seen as witchcraft since common sense doesn't always win out.

Adelia and her friends use her examination results as a starting point, and also find helpful allies in the local prior, a knowledgeable and kind man who Adelia treated on their way to town, Glytha, a maid referred by him, and her grandson Ulf, all of whom give the newcomers access to places they otherwise wouldn't have been able to visit as well as acting as interpreters of the town. Due to the clues, they begin narrowing their field of suspects, and one person in particular seems suspicious to Adelia as he also seems to be investigating the crimes for no explainable reason. Simon, however, trusts Rowley so he becomes an important figure in the story.

There are a few clues that the author drops that a reader may or may not connect as the story goes on. While it is a more or less average mystery novel, the setting was entertaining, though Franklin admits that it is impossible not to be anachronistic when writing historical fiction set in the 12th century. While I didn't have a problem with the romantic relationship that ended up occurring, it seemed a bit rushed at points, going from "oh, I don't think I like him" to "I love him" in about two or three pages. I think if it had progressed a little less quickly, I would have preferred it. That actually reminds me of one other thing - I had a hard time telling how much time was really passing as the novel occurred. On the one hand, it felt like the investigation only went on for a few days or two or three weeks at most, at other times, Adelia notes to the prior that he has lost weight since she prescribed him with a new diet plan while she helped him with his medical issue. It just seems like if he has noticeably lost weight, more than a few days have passed between meetings (I mean I know you can lose enough weight in a month for it to be noticeable, but as I said, I felt like they weren't there that long).

One thing I actually really liked about the novel had less to do with the plot and more to do with the characterization of Henry II. As I said, it seems like he is more famous for the death of Thomas Becket and his struggles with the church than anything else, and usually Becket is shown as the good guy, the hero (I remember him making an appearance in The Pillars of the Earth, and Philip thinking that it was a good sign for England and progress that the king later apologized and bowed down to the church). In this novel, however, we are shown how superstitious and corrupt the Church is. Additionally, Becket, while already dead, is shown as someone unwilling to support reform for the good of the country and who instead wanted to hold on to the power the Church had for the worse of the people. It actually really makes me want to read a real biography of Henry II and see what the real deal is. I think I have a biography of his wife by Alison Weir in my car . . . maybe it refers to her husband's religious battles. I think that's always a good thing, though, when historical fiction inspires the reader to do more research on a topic, so in that way, I definitely have to give my respect to Franklin.

1 comment:

Deistbrawler said...

I totally misread that as saying Aretha Franklin and my mind went SAY WHAT?