Review of “Mistress of the Art of Death” by Ariana Franklin

This absorbing suspense novel that takes place in medieval times won the Ellis Peters Historical Dagger Award. Ellis Peters, you may know, is the author of the Brother Cadfael series – mysteries that take place in the mid-twelfth century.

Mistress of the Art of Death also takes place in the twelfth century, albeit a bit later than the Peters books. But there are some significant differences. The main one is that the herbal expert, healer, and sleuth is a female from Salerno – Adelia Aguilar – who is also, and primarily, a forensic specialist into causes of death.

In 1171, four young children in Cambridge have been brutally mutilated and murdered. Their deaths have been staged to appear as if they were carried out by the Jews of the town, and two prominent members of the Jewish community have already been killed by scared and angry Cambridge residents. The King, Henry II, derives significant tax income from the Jews, and does not want his monetary flow disrupted. Therefore he procures the services of Adelia along with her detective companion, Simon of Naples, and her bodyguard, Mansur, an Arab, in the hope they can ferret out the actual perpetrator of these heinous crimes.

As with many other mystery/thrillers, Adelia soon finds her own life in danger as she draws closer to solving the horrible crime of the killer of the children.

Evaluation: There are a couple of oddities about this novel. In some senses, Adelia could be placed into a novel set in 2010 without much being changed besides her clothing and maybe the addition of a cell phone. Unlike Brother Cadfael, who seems very much a man of his times, Adelia seems very much a woman of our times. Her dialogue, thoughts, attitudes, and behavior seem much more characteristic of a very liberated modern woman than of a well-educated but medieval female of the twelfth century.

Also, Franklin both begins and ends the novel with a sort of off-putting (to me) style that reads like the fade-in and fade-out of a screen play. I was glad I persevered and got past the beginning, but I’m not sure why she felt the need to introduce and end her story in such an awkward way.

On the other hand, there were elements of the book I liked very much. The supporting cast of characters is delightful, from Prior Geoffrey and his enlarged prostrate, to the down-to-earth and savvy servants Gyltha and her grandson Ulf who speak in a charming East Anglian patois.

Franklin also offers a macro-perspective on the role of the church in medieval society as well as its politicization which is largely missing from the Brother Cadfael books.

Third, I like the level of tension over who might have been responsible for the killings, and who might be next. And there is a romance of opposites that provides some humor in addition to – well – romance!

Overall, I enjoyed the book and intend to get the sequel. But if one prefers more authenticity (at the cost of less suspense), I might recommend the Brother Cadfael series.

Rating: 3.8/5

Published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2007

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18 Responses to Review of “Mistress of the Art of Death” by Ariana Franklin

  1. Teresa says:

    I felt the same way about Adelia. I just couldn’t accept her as a Medieval woman. That’s a pet peeve of mine in historical fiction, so it ended up ruining the the book. I’m glad you were able to see past it and enjoy it!

  2. nymeth says:

    Though at first glance this has all the ingredients I usually love in a novel, sadly I just couldn’t get into it at all. Adelia’s anachronism was definitely one of the reasons. Oh well; it sounds like I’d have more luck with Brother Cadafael!

  3. zibilee says:

    I really liked this book, and thought it was very original and gritty. I think I agree that Adelia could have been transplanted into more modern times without having to change much as well. I also have to caution you that the second book in this series is not very good at all. I am stuck about 3/4 of the way through and just can’t make myself finish. It has too many characters and plots going on, and none of them are that interesting. It seems a lot more messy and stylistically deformed. Just wanted you to know.

    Loved your review on this one. You had some very interesting observations that I had neglected to think about!

  4. bermudaonion says:

    After reading your review, I think I might like the book, but I find the cover disturbing.

  5. I’ve planned to read this one for a long time — it’s sitting on my nightstand, and I meant to read it for Halloween, but never got around to it!

  6. Trish says:

    Whew–I’m glad there were some redeeming features to this one because your first criticisms had me a little disappointed after being at first intrigued by your thoughts. I think I’m pretty forgiving of time inconsistencies (I’m a dense reader?), so I’ll keep my eye open for this one.

    3.8? Funny rating. 😉

  7. Margot says:

    I’m keeping Brother Cadfael on my list of books to read for my twelfth-century experience. I like my characters to belong to the era they’re living in..

  8. Jenners says:

    3.8? What kind of wacky rating system do you have.

    I think it should get an extra .5 points for the creepy cover … but perhaps you factored that in already.

  9. Julie P. says:

    It’s an interesting premise but I’m not sure it’s for me.

  10. Staci says:

    I’m just now really getting into the medieval time period and this one sounds really interesting!

  11. I liked this novel very much, but I agree that the main character had modern sensibilities. The author explained this, to some extent, by the unconventional way she was brought up. I loved your review! You’re a terrific writer.

  12. Becky says:

    I think that the characters are what make a book. I don’t think that I would be able to call “Blood Soup” by Kelly A. Harmon my latest favorite read if the author hadn’t depicted the characters as well as she had… to fit with the times. The scenes are also extremely important to me… Harmon’s ability to evoke the sights, sounds and scents of the time and place transported and engaged me.

  13. Care says:

    You write amazing reviews. Thank you.

  14. I’m skipping this one, precisely for the reason you state: the characters must fit the time period. If an author can’t do that, then I know I’ll dislike the book and then I’ll be in a bad mood for a week.

    It takes a fair amount of work to get historical fiction right. That’s why I admire the authors who do it so very well.

  15. Alyce says:

    Between the cover and the title it sounds very dark, but then from reading your review I get the sense that it’s actually quite interesting. I guess that just proves you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.

  16. I really would like to read this one soon. And I own it, so I really have no excuse.

  17. Lisa says:

    I enjoyed this one as well but had the same problems. But it had great tension and I loved the setting.

  18. jewwishes says:

    I have read this book, and find your review to be an excellent one.

    Thank you for visiting my site.

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