corpses, curiosity, and cambridgeshire: Ariana Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death

I had read Ariana Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death last year, but, through no fault of the book, I was stressed, and rushed and very much in a hurry to get to the end.  For that reason, when I saw it displayed at the library, I decided to pick it up again, and I enjoyed it hugely.

Franklin, with her attention to detail, brings the medieval world of Henry II’s England to vibrant, noisy, and occasionally noisome life.  We begin, though, in Salerno–where the finest doctors in the world come to learn and practice.  The King of Sicily is in need of a “master of death”, someone who can autopsy a body and discover where, when, and possibly why, a person died.  An immediate complication becomes apparent when a mistress of death is sent, instead.

Enter Vesuiva Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar, a girl adopted by her physician parents after being found exposed on the side of a volcano. She is highly intelligent, prickly, a consummate scientist and observer, and irritable at being sent from Salerno to cold and windy Cambridgeshire. She is fiercely guarded by Mansur, a Saracen eunuch, and accompanied by Simon of Naples, a Jew and investigator.  They have been sent to England at the request of Henry II.  Someone is killing children in Cambridgeshire, and the bodies need someone to tell their stories.

The political necessity of solving this crimes is clear to Henry II.  With no clear suspect, the town is blaming the Jewish moneylenders, and the King is losing revenue and patience. The first victim has become a local saint, and Adelia and her friends find their first friend, Prior Geoffery, after they save his life. They are in need of friends, for as soon as they make it into town, it is clear that the killer they are seeking is both clever and desperate. Prior Geoffery is not their only ally; the King’s tax-collector, Rowley, has also attached himself to the group.  However, Adelia is not comfortable with Rowley, as a crusader, knight, and man, he fits too many of the criteria for the killer to allow Adelia to trust him. The Jews, and Adelia and her friends, are in ever more danger as the questions Adelia and Simon ask lead them closer to the truth.

Franklin does a fantastic job creating the world that Adelia lives in.  Her ability to weave facts of daily life into the story make it seem real and true, even if Adelia herself displays some truly modern opinions and characteristics. Henry II is described especially well, his ability and strength as King are clear–as is his terrible, and self-destructive, temper. Mistress of the Art of Death is a great start to a series that already has an excellent sequel in The Death Maze.  Hopefully, Ariana and Adelia will continue their investigations for years to come.