Hardcover, 384 pages
Published: February 6, 2007 by G.P. Putnam’s Sons (1st published 2007)
Setting: Cambridge, England, 1171
In 12th century Cambridge, England, pilgrims are returning from Canterbury. Knights have been coming back from the Crusades, and the power struggle between King Henry II and the Catholic Church recently culminated in the murder of Thomas a Becket.
In the midst of this turmoil, someone is luring children away from the village and brutally murdering them. Christian villagers scapegoat the local Jewish population, and violence erupts. This increases pressure on King Henry to expel the Jews from England, but this is unacceptable to him — it would lower his tax base. He appeals to the King of Sicily for help, and he is sent an investigator and a female doctor, Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar, a mistress of the art of death.
Adelia was an orphan, raised by an atheist Jew in Salerno. Recognizing a mind rivaling his own, her foster father trained her as a physician, in one of the few parts of the world where female doctors were allowed to practice, and taught her to examine corpses to determine the cause of death.
Now Adelia arrives in England, a backward country where she must hide her profession because of her gender and where medical practitioners are viewed with suspicion. She begins her increasingly dangerous pursuit of “Raksasha,” the devil who has been torturing and murdering children and may bring down death on all of Cambridge’s Jews.
Mistress of the Art of Death is crafted like a modern murder mystery, with the plot twists and intense, violent climax we’ve come to expect in today’s thrillers. It also includes a wealth of fascinating historical detail.
Some reviewers have criticized this novel for glaring historical inaccuracies. Several anachronisms are explained in the author’s afterward, but some are not. I am no scholar of medieval history, but I noticed that some characters suffered from cholera, although it wasn’t identified until the 19th century. However, I thought the wealth of believable period detail and the thoughtful exploration of important historical events and social changes of the time more than compensated for a few anachronisms.
This author provides an interesting and fairly balanced perspective on Henry II, looking at his struggles with the church from a different angle. She focused on England’s movement toward religious freedom more than his role in Thomas a Becket’s brutal murder. This was a different perspective from others I’ve read and, while it didn’t deny the King’s tendency toward rage and cruelty, I found it thought-provoking.
This author is also gifted at descriptive writing. She recreated medieval Cambridge, which was a vibrant river port, with rich detail and vivid color. She recreated the blending of a simple feudal village and a port where travelers from all over the world converged.
My favorite part of the novel, however, was the character development, particularly Adelia. She was a woman who was out of place in her own time, and this was made believable by her unusual upbringing. She was intelligent, freethinking, courageous, and compassionate, and I loved being in her mind and seeing the world through her eyes.
The only thing that didn’t appeal to me was the romance, which I found a bit predictable and not wholly convincing. However, Adelia’s relationship with her love interest did have a few interesting twists.
I recommend this novel for mystery lovers and historical fiction fans. In addition to a suspenseful yarn, which highlights Ariana Franklin’s glorious storytelling skills, it provides an vivid glimpse of life in Medieval Britain along with a stimulating look at a fascinating period in English history.
It does have disturbing material, including a Poe-esque twist near the end, so it might not be a good pick for everyone. However readers who connect with the book will savor the accomplished storytelling, vividly painted characters, and the twists and turns in the plot, which kept me turning pages long after I should have been asleep.