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Mistress of the Art of Death, Ariana Franklin

historical fiction by Ariana Franklin

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"I am not here to pray for them... I speak for them."

  • Feb 20, 2009
  • by
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 tearing one Jewish couple apart, the angry mob pursues the Jews into Cambridge Castle, where they are held under the protection of Henry II. Not a little disgruntled, Henry bemoans the loss of income from his incarcerated Jews; seeking to remedy the situation as soon as possible, Henry sends to Sicily for a practitioner of "the art of death", the medieval answer to modern day forensic science. Not long after, a creaking cart joins a group of travelers, among them returning Crusaders, the local prioress and the king's tax collector: "One of them, exuberant as the rest, is a child killer."

Hoping to merge with the common folk, but noted for their strange appearance, the cart is occupied by Adelia, a physician trained in Salerno, Simon the Jew, the organizer and putative leader and Mansur, a huge Saracen castrato. Although the woman is truly "the mistress of death", she allows the villagers their natural assumption that Mansur is the doctor, confronted with an anti-female prejudice that is so pervasive as to relegate her to a supporting role. Through artifice, Adelia manages to examine the body of the first murdered child, now encased in a jewel-encrusted reliquary, the centerpiece of St. Radegund's convent, coins exchanged for viewing "the little saint". But with the discovery of three more dead and horribly mutilated children's corpses, the locals are in a frenzy to attack the Jews in the castle. It is against such rising hysteria that Adelia must gather information to expose a killer who has strewn small bodies behind him, seemingly impervious to discovery.

Adelia performs her task admirably, given the limitations of her womanhood, sifting through the many suspicious candidates, from knights to monks to a local religious fanatic, even Sir Rowley Picot, who seems to be everywhere she is, privy to the evidence thanks to Simon. Surrounded by superstition and ignorance, the physician's job is formidable and dangerous, even for those around her, like Ulf, the sly grandson of their servant, and Safeguard, a rank canine who follows her everywhere. Adelia and Ulf conspire: it is the river that draws the children, the river and someone they trust implicitly. But who is so cunning as to avoid recognition? Combing the countryside, Adelia and Ulf stumble over the truth, their lives in peril, the young woman unable to control her curiosity in spite of a stalking menace. Richly atmospheric, the author creates a believable city mired in ignorance and fear, the brutality of life and the excesses of religion everyday fare. This cast of villains, nuns, monks, charlatans and noble souls reflect both limited knowledge and a thirst for scientific evidence, quietly observed by a king who ultimately delivers justice, but will be excoriated by history for the infamous murder of Thomas a Becket. Luan Gaines.
Mistress of the Art of Death

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More Mistress of the Art of Death reviews
review by . January 19, 2011
   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 …
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.
About the reviewer
Luan Gaines ()
Ranked #108
An artist/writer, I have traveled the world, walked on the moon and learned the complicated language of humanity, the enormity of the universe... all through the written word. My first passport was a … more
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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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