Thursday, June 28, 2012

Happiness is...a good book (Summer Reading edition #4)

Mistress of the Art of Death
Author: Ariana Franklin
Published: 2007
Pages: 400
Age Range: Adult
Genre: Historical Fiction/Mystery
Cover Score: ****
Overall Score:****
Rating: R

First sentence: Here they come. 

Adelia is a doctor who specializes in postmortem diagnoses.  She's been summoned from her work in Salerno to investigate the murders of several children in Cambridge and to prove the innocence of a small group of Jews living there who have been blamed for the attacks. The only problem? It's 1171 and female medics are burned as witches. Add to it the fact that she's traveling with a Jew and a Saracen (and the countrymen just back from the Crusades) and she's bound to not be welcome or be able to do the job.
She gains friendship and a secret ally in the local prior whom she services on their journey and a tax collector who, because of his knowledge and interest in the case becomes one of Adelia's prime suspects. Forced to do her work primarily in secret and be subject to people's assumptions and judgments of her and who she is (she acts as the Saracen's interpreter and assistant in most cases) she struggles with prejudices, narrow mindedness, superstitions and blind obeisance of the townspeople and its leaders. Meanwhile children continue to die in a most gruesome manner. Will she be able to do her job well enough to stop the killer?

Taut and suspenseful it's an intriguing mystery woven into a beautiful historical tapestry that captures your attention and keeps you guessing. Henry II makes a cameo appearance and bulks up the historical part with details added about the instituting of common law, the creation of juries and other judicial changes which came about during his reign as well as the part the Crusades played in shaping the kingdom and its people. There were many traditions and appreciations brought back to the motherland along with some deepened prejudices (as well as their own versions of PTSDs.) Evil and goodness each have their say, sometimes mixed into the same characters and moments just as they are in life. There are conflicts between faith and unbelief, faith vs. The Church as well as caste and sex discriminations that rear their heads at the most inopportune times.

It's a bit gruesome and gory in parts, not for the faint of heart. Because the victims are raped and molested there are some rather vivid descriptions; much of the violence perpetrated against children, most of the rest against women. There is also some frank talk of sex and anatomical responses (though it's often from Adelia's more clinical point of view.)

By this time you all know I love me a good historical fiction and this definitely fit the bill. I loved the varied cast of characters. While it was Adelia's story you did get some notion of what life was like for each of the other groups mentioned (children, nuns, upper class etc. were all touched on.) The historical setting was a rich backdrop while the mystery could have stepped off the set of any crime scene tv show. I do like my violence to take place mostly off screen, so while it didn't detract from the story or writing at all I squirmed uncomfortably in a few places, but that's just me.

Here's a short passage that gives you just a flavor of the setting and the river which is practically a character in its own right:

In the distance loomed Great Bridge, a massive, workmanlike arch crammed with traffic.  Beyond it, where the river formed a deep pool below the castle on its hill--almost a mountain in this terrain--shipping so crowded the quays it seemed impossible from this view, that it should disentangle itself.  Wooden cranes dipped and rose like bowing herons.  Shouts and instructions were being issued in different languages.  The crafts were as varied as the tongues; wherries, horse-drawn barges, poled barges, rafts, vessels like arks--even, to Adelia's astonishment, a dhow. She could see men with blond plaits, hung about with animal skis so that tey looked like bears, performing a leaping dance back and forth between barges for the amusement of working dockers. (pg 111)

I'm nearly halfway through the second book in the series (though rumor has it the author wrote the third installment with quite a cliff-hanger ending and then passed away) and am enjoying it just as much as I did the first. For those of you who enjoy a smart mystery I'd highly recommend it!

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