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Mistress of the Art of Death, Ariana Franklin

historical fiction by Ariana Franklin

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Mistress of the Art of Death

  • Jan 19, 2011
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Dr. Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar has just been dispatched from Salerno to Cambridge in an effort to help catch a killer. This particular killer chooses children as his victims, and as the story begins, he has had his savage and bloodthirsty way with four of them. As the murdered children are all Christians, suspicion begins to fall on the Jews of Cambridge, much to the chagrin of King Henry, who wishes to see them absolved. Adelia finds herself in a strange predicament after landing in Cambridge, for although she's a doctor of particular renown in Salerno, the attitudes of the English prevent her from practicing openly: one because she is a female, and two because her specialty in the examination of dead bodies is regarded with suspicion and considered witchcraft. Under a cloak of secrecy, Adelia begins her investigation into the brutal murders, uncovering surprising and damning evidence of not only the supposed killer, but of the town and the people he is hidden among. When Sir Rowly Picot joins the investigation at Adelia's side, she's far from happy. Rowley has his own reasons for wanting information about the killer, but Adelia isn't quite sure he shouldn't be considered a suspect. As the two creep closer and closer to the truth, the unknown killer begins to venomously resist from the shadows, placing Adelia and Rowley into some of the most sinister and dangerous situations that they've ever faced. In this complex and deeply dark blend of historical fiction and mystery, two of the most unlikely allies must come together to unmask a horrible and demonic killer, and to save Cambridge's children before it's too late.

I rarely read books that are part of a series nowadays. For one thing, they're a bit tougher to review than standalone novels. Also, I find myself wanting to gulp down the entire series at one time, which can be a problem when there are so many other books vying for attention. I made an exception for these books after reading some really great reviews on them, and I have to admit the medieval setting was one that I couldn't ignore. I'm really glad I made the choice to read these books, but now I'm in the predicament that I dreaded, with wanting to read on and continue the series, come hell or high water.

What I noticed first about this book as I was reading, was the unremitting darkness that surrounded the plot and characters. One could argue that the medieval age was one of particular darkness, but I think this book strove deeply for a real feeling of foreboding and ominousness. From the outset, the murders of the children take center stage and there is no shying away from all the gruesome details. Even the introduction of Adelia manages to be suffused with cryptic portent, explaining her time among the other scholars of Salerno who are fluent in the art of death. This setting of the scene may have come across as too maudlin had it not been handled in the right way, but Franklin does a lot during these sections to set the perfect stage and to make these characters into people the reader is eager to know. As things begin to move forward, the pall remains, hanging over every description and scene, creating a medieval England that's not only dangerous and sinister, but ripe for the talents that Adelia has to offer.

The historical sections were what really interested me the most. Ostensibly, this book has a dual genre, bobbing between historical fiction and mystery, but I think I took the most enjoyment from the history. Franklin does a great deal to make the book feel authentic, from the prejudices and strictures against women, and particularly women skilled in the art of healing, to the oppressive and heavy-handed role of the church in Cambridge society. The attitudes of the population at that time were particularly backward in most cases, and the commoners needed little urging to become bloodthirsty, which in the case of this story, felt all too real. As Adelia is forced to investigate under cover, I began to see that the things which hindered her were not only the conventions of the people surrounding her, but the lack of enlightenment that spread far and wide throughout the realm.

I wasn't as impressed with the mystery aspects of this book early on, because it was pretty obvious to me who the killer was. But Franklin had a few aces up her sleeve and I managed to be shocked at the mystery despite myself. Often I shy away mysteries because it's always too easy for me to figure things out, but here, the mystery had a fullness and an unexpectedness that really thrilled me. There was definitely more to this story than met the eye, and turning the last page, I was both horrified and excited to find out where the next book would lead me. It was definitely a more sinister story than I had first thought it would or could be, and I liked that every character in the book played their part with skill and efficiency. The implications this story raised were much more troubling than the murder that Adelia was contracted to solve, leaving me to marvel at Franklin's skill at creating this microcosm of the medieval world, a world seething with malevolence.

it's interesting to note the position of women in this society. Being a woman tied to the Church or the wife of a commoner were the excepted norms, but for Adleia's safety, it's better that she hides her status as a learned woman, lest she be accused of witchcraft. A lot of the time, these strictures hinder and anger her, for coming from a place that respects the contributions of both male and females, Adleia is loathe to give up her rights and privileges. Though she must be covert in her dealings with the dead, a few of the other characters come to know her for who she really is and must protect her secret alongside of her. Even those in the know find her strange and inexplicable knowledge almost sinister, and realize the possession of this knowledge means danger to themselves. Though Adelia is severely limited in the ways she can investigate, she finds a way to do what is necessary and complete her job.

The plight of Cambridge's Jews was also very interesting. As taxpayers, they are of great importance to the king, but since the murders of the children, the other townsfolk have basically kept them in fear for their lives and hiding in an abandoned castle. It seems Cambridge and England is no stranger to anti-Semitism, and in fact, throughout history and across continents, Jews have been vilified for a number of reasons that are incredible to think about. By highlighting this aspect of the story, Franklin is able to discourse on the unfair blame that the Jews have shouldered, even in a place so far removed in time. In the discovery of the true murderer, the Jews are forgiven and accepted back into the town, but the damage has been done and things will never be the same. The unfortunate sting of blame and recrimination becomes just one pinpoint of the humiliations and injustices the Jewish population must endure throughout time.

I was unexpectedly pleased with the depth and power of this book. Many of the topics and situations are specific to the time and place described, but I found that Franklin's ability to make them resonant, even in today's society, was masterful. Though this was one of the darker books I've read in some time, I found it to be one that I couldn't put down, and the intelligence and complexity of the narrative was delightful to me. I think lovers of historical fiction would do well to pick up this book, as well as those mystery lovers looking for something beyond the norm. I'm already in the middle of the next installment and am finding it to be just as entertaining and engrossing as the first. It was a really great read, made greater by the author's ability to tease out the more meaningful aspects of the story. Recommended.

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January 20, 2011
I just bought this book for myself and my best friend. We are planning to read it together. I can't wait! Based on your review, it was definitely worth the purchase! Great review!
More Mistress of the Art of Death reviews
review by . July 09, 2010
Having opted to be a stay-at-home mom a couple of years ago, my budget means I'm a big library-borrower these days, rather than a book-buyer.  That said, Ariana Franklin's books are on my shelves - they're just too enjoyable to pass up.        Mistress of the Art of Death is the first in a series, and after I got lost in the story during the day or two it took to consume the first book, I get excited every time I hear a new title has been released.     …
Quick Tip by . June 10, 2010
Very inventive premise combined with a solid mystery. A female physician from relatively enlightened Sicily forced to deal with the ignorant prejudices of Angevin England.
review by . February 20, 2009
Mistress of the Art of Death
In 1171, Cambridge is beset by a series of brutal child murders, so inflaming the citizens that they turn on the local Jews as scapegoats, reinforcing the common belief that these baby killers routinely sacrifice Christian children to their God. Such medieval prejudices are common, the uneducated villagers quick to gather into a hysterical mob screaming for the blood of the guilty with no proof other than the hearsay of so-called witnesses, whose stories are further embellished in the telling. Literally …
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Heather Figearo ()
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Member Since: Jan 12, 2011
Last Login: Feb 25, 2011 05:24 PM UTC
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About this book



ISBN-10: 0425219259 (pbk.)
ISBN-13: 9780425219256 (pbk.)
Author: Ariana Franklin
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Berkley Trade
Date Published: January 29, 2008
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