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Books 114-115: Mistress of the Art of Death and The Death Maze by Ariana Franklin

Book 114: Mistress of the Art of Death .
Author: Ariana Franklin, 2007.
Genre: Historical Murder Mystery. 12th Century England.
Other Details: Paperback. 507 pages.

England, 1170 and in Cambridge a child has been hideously murdered while others have disappeared without trace. The angry townspeople are blaming the local Jews and as a result they have been forced to abandon their homes and businesses and take refuge in Cambridge Castle. King Henry II is unhappy as he relies upon England's Jews for a hefty portion of his tax revenue. He wants the real killer found and the Jews cleared so that they can go back to earning him money.

He sends for Simon of Naples, a man renowned for his ability to sort out such problems. Simon is accompanied by a young woman, Adelia Aguilar. Adelia is the 'mistress of the art of death'. She has trained as a doctor at the School of Medicine in Salerno, with a special interest in anatomy and pathology. However, outside the liberal environment of Salerno she is forced to conceal her skills in case she is accused of witchcraft.

As in any good murder mystery there are plenty of twists and turns, false leads and inevitably mortal danger for the protagonists. The novel also tackles issues linked to religion, the power of the medieval Church and religious tolerance.

This book has been on my 'must read' for a while and I was delighted that it came up as a selection in our library reading group. It was a terrific murder mystery with a strong and interesting cast of main and supporting characters. In addition, Franklin did a superb job in terms of the historical setting, winning praise and an award for her historical accuracy. The novel won the CWA Ellis Peters Historical Award.

Of course, there are some anachronisms though Adelia's profession isn't one of them. The Salerno School of Medicine did admit women to train as doctors during the 11th and 12th centuries. Still I did joke that sometimes it was like reading 'C.S.I.: 1171' but that was part of its charm. It also has quite a tender romance that worked just perfectly in the context of the book. I just loved it.

Author's web page on 'Mistress of the Art of Death' - with excerpt and notes on research.

Book 115: The Death Maze (US Title: The Serpent's Tale).
Author: Ariana Franklin, 2008.
Genre: Historical Murder Mystery. 12th Century England.
Other Details: Paperback. 448 pages.

About eighteen months have elapsed since the events in Mistress of the Art of Death. Adelia has not been allowed to return to Salerno as King Henry regards her as his 'secret weapon'. She is ordered to travel to Oxford to investigate the poisoning of the King's favourite mistress, Rosamund Clifford. Rumour says that the Fair Rosamund was murdered by the jealous Queen Eleanor. It is unlikely to be true but if the King believes the stories then the country faces civil war.

So Adelia faces a race against time to prove the Queen's innocence and unmask the real assassin. In doing so she finds herself plunged into the intrigues of royal politics and the battle of wills between King Henry and Queen Eleanor.

Most of the story takes place in a snowbound Oxfordshire leading up to Christmas. Rosamund's legendary tower, surrounded by a protective maze, and nearby Godstow Abbey are both well realised as key locations. The characterisation are again strong all around. King Henry II is especially brilliant in his scenes with Adelia.

The place of women in medieval society as well as the contribution made by Queen Eleanor's Court of Love is considered alongside the central mystery. I just love this period of English history and appreciated Adelia as someone viewing Medieval England as an outsider.

I am very much looking forward to Book 3, which is set in Glastonbury.
Tags: award winner, historical mysteries, murder mystery
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