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This, I think, will be one of those books you either love or hate. It covers a historical period that I do not believe is much written about, and subjects as diverse as racism, murder and the perceiived role of women in the western world. It is only because Adela has been asked to attend by the King that she is even accepted in the country.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, but be warned, if you are of a sensitive nature it does get graphic in places for all the right reasons.
I could not put this book down, which says to me that it was well crafted and keeps the reader engaged. Even when it got uncomfortable I wanted to read on to find out what happened. I can only describe this book effectiviely as a page turner.
If you enjoy the medieaval whodunnits (Cadfael, Sister Fidelma, and the like) this is not so cosy, and is more realisitic, if still, fiction.
I would recommend this book to anyone it's a very good, enjoyable read.
When a child murder takes place in twelfth century Cambridge, the finger of blame is pointed at the town's Jewish community. As tensions rise, Cambridge's Jews are forced to take refuge behind the walls of the castle but this poses a big problem for the king; with the Jews unable to work, the country is losing a lucrative income in the form of taxes. The situation calls for an expert and the king summons the services of an expert investigator, Simon of Athens. However, Simon does not arrive alone; if it wasn't odd enough to the citizens of Cambridge that he should be accompanied by an Arab eunuch, Simon is assisted by Adelia Aguilar, a female doctor, trained at the medical school in Salerno and an expert in mysterious deaths. Knowing that Adelia will not be able to openly carry out her trade because she is a woman, the investigation must take place without anyone knowing that it is she that is the one who is examining the evidence. Not only that, by the time the Simon and his friends reach Cambridge more children are missing and someone seems bent on ensuring that these medieval detectives do not learn the truth.
Simon and Adelia arrive in Cambridge in the company of a band of pilgrims, hoping that by doing so they can divert attention from themselves. Among the pilgrims are two fierce rivals, the prioress of St .Radegund's nunnery and Prior Geoffrey, the head of a monastery which is situated directly across the river from the nunnery. Prioress Joan is determined to secure ownership of the remains of the dead child, now being touted as Little St. Peter, to display in her church as a way of generating income. Geoffrey is set on preventing this. Against this struggle, Adelia must try to determine how Peter met his end and, in doing so, identify the murderer.
From the outset I had doubts about the historical accuracy and authenticity of the setting and the characters but "Mistress of the Art of Death" is such an engaging and compelling story that I soon forgot about these niggles. Most importantly, as crime fiction, this really hits the spot. There are plenty of suspects for readers to consider and plenty of clues to get those brain cells buzzing. The main plot is watertight and the sub plots weave in very nicely.
But what really makes Mistress of the Art of Death a great read is the characterisation and scene setting. Ariana Franklin (a pseudonym of author Diana Norman) transports readers to a bustling medieval English town complete with the sounds and smells to go with the visual images. Combined with this trip to a very specific period, the reader is presented with a number of issues of the time - the place of religion, the role of women, the class system - which give plenty of food for thought without detracting from the main plot.
Adelia is the star of this show but there are plenty of characters here that could easily be at the centre of some other novel. Prior Geoffrey is the, admittedly stereotypical, pampered clergyman who clearly lives the high life even though he preaches the merits of a different lifestyle to others. Unlike the Prioress, though, he is basically a decent man; she, on the other hand, is the perfect example of the corruption rife in the church at a time when the selling pardons was a lucrative trade.
Adelia is an engaging and highly likeable character even if she too frequently comes across as product of more recent times. Her knowledge of the principles of good hygiene is way before her time (centuries ahead in fact) and her feminist stance strikes me as unlikely. That said, she is funny and witty and draws the reader in with her humour and warmth. I particularly enjoyed the interaction between Adelia and Ulf, a young boy who accompanies her throughout the investigation. Ulf and his grandmother, who Prior Geoffrey arranges to act as a cook and housekeeper, test Adelia before they agree to help her but once she proves herself, Adelia finds she has in the unconventional pair a source of loyalty that she will come to be grateful for, in spite of her will to be independent.
To dwell on the factual errors and generally unlikely nature of some of the details and dialogue is to do Mistress of the Art of Death a great disservice. This briskly paced novel is thoroughly absorbing and keeps the reader guessing until the end. This novel is surprising, witty and intriguing and, to my mind, evoked the period in a really colourful way. It's a brilliant introduction to a character I can really get along with and I look forward to my next encounter.
At first I wasn't sure whether to pick up this book, mostly due to its clumsy title - it just seemed a bit clunky. This is in some ways how the plot works out - but it is more interesting than I originally thought it would be.
The book follows the quest of Simon of Naples and his doctor companion Adelia, along with her bodyguard Mansur, as they try to clear the name of the Jews of Cambridge in a spate of child murders.
They have been sent from Salerno by the King of Naples so that the Jews are not expelled from England - the Church would seize on the murders as an excuse to do this.
King Henry II doesn't want this to happen as he needs the Jews' money. He is also furious over his subjugation to the Church after the murder of Thomas Becket.
I found the plot quite slow at first and it took some time to grab my interest but by about halfway through it was much better.
The main character is Adelia - "The Mistress of the Art of Death" - i.e a forensic pathologist. Her struggle to conceal her profession is quite prominent in the plot as female doctors were unusual in the twelfth century.
She is helping Simon of Naples discover the killer through the clues left on the bodies of the victims. I found this quite interesting although I'm not sure how realistic it would be in the twelfth century.
The plot does wander a bit as it is so concerned with Adelia and her origins and training. The character of Rowley (the King's so-called tax inspector) is ok but the romance seems to have been thrown in as a bit of an afterthought and didn't add anything to the story for me.
Mansur and Gyltha offered some light relief as the servants as did Gyltha's grandson Ulf. Simon of Naples was not as prominent as I expected but was a fairly good character.
I felt that some of the characterisation suffered through the absolute focus on Adelia, who could be quite irritating at times.
The identity of the killer was dragged out a bit towards the end and I did actually guess who he was fairly early on. There is a twist that I suspected but was still quite good when it was revealed.
I thought the character of King Henry II was quite well drawn and was an interesting addition to the denouement.
Overall I enjoyed this book but the second half was much more interesting as there was more action. The plot could be a bit clunky and did rely on coincidences but it was fairly enjoyable. I thought it was a good look at twelfth century England but not necessarily always realistic.
I don't think I would buy this book but it is worth a read from the library.
This review is also on Ciao.co.uk under username mogdred1.