Friday, 16 January 2009

Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin

"In medieval Cambridge, England, four children have been murdered. The crimes are immediately blamed on the town's Jewish community, taken as evidence that Jews sacrifice Christian children in blasphemous ceremonies. To save them from the rioting mob, the king places the Cambridge Jews under his protection and hides them in a castle fortress. King Henry II is no friend of the Jews - or anyone, really - but he is invested in their fate. Without the taxes received from Jewish merchants, his treasuries would go bankrupt. Hoping scientific investigation will exonerate the Jews, Henry calls on his cousin the King of Sicily - whose subjects include the best medical experts in Europe - and asks for his finest "master of the art of death," an early version of the medical examiner. The Italian doctor chosen for the task is a young prodigy from the University of Salerno. But her name is Adelia - the king has been sent a mistress of the art of death.

Adelia and her companions - Simon, a Jew, and Mansur, a Moor - travel to England to unravel the mystery of the Cambridge murders, which turn out to be the work of a serial killer, most likely one who has been on Crusade with the king. In a backward and superstitious country like England, Adelia must conceal her true identity as a doctor in order to avoid accusations of witchcraft. Along the way, she is assisted by Sir Rowley Picot, one of the king's tax collectors, a man with a personal stake in the investigation. Rowley may be a needed friend, or the fiend for whom they are searching. As Adelia's investigation takes her into Cambridge's shadowy river paths and behind the closed doors of its churches and nunneries, the hunt intensifies and the killer prepares to strike again."


A boy is found murdered on the bottom of the river, those who saw the body say he was crucified, there's a witness who swears she saw him hanging from a cross at a prominent Jew's house, while a wedding was taking place. It's the Easter season and rumour has it that Jews sacrifice Christian children in their celebration rituals, so of course the village people turn against the Jews, and after murdering the couple at whose house the body was seen, they force the rest of them to take shelter at Cambridge's castle.

A year has passed and three other children go missing, despite the fact that the Jews are still locked up in the castle, the village people still believe they're the guilty party, some even say they have grown wings and fly out over the castle walls to abduct the children. Henry II is not at all pleased over these events, not because he has any personal friends among the Jews but because most of his taxes come from them, and now that they're locked up, there's no incoming taxes and he has to feed them all, on top of that. So he decides to hire someone to investigate the murders and if possible, help clear the name of the Jews.

Adelia Aguilar is a mistress of the art of death, something of a coroner in the 12th century, she's a woman doctor, something that is common in Salerno where she comes from but is totally unheard of in Cambridge, if her true identity was found she'd probably be labelled as a witch. Not wanting to draw too much attention to themselves while investigating the crimes, Adelia and her companions, Simon Menahem and Mansur, try to pass as doctor Mansur and his assistants, as a man doctor wasn't uncommon in those days, if though rare.

They arrive in town among a group of pilgrims that come from a visit to St. Thomas Beckett, we find out later that these people are the main suspects for the crimes, one of them is our gruesome serial killer. The only problem is to find out which one of them has a heart carved in ice!

This book grabs you from the start, the plot is extremely well weaved, the historical background if not entirely accurate is still believable and interesting and the characters are one of the best I've seen lately, especially Adelia with her strong character, her wry humour and clever repartees, she made me laugh out loud in certain scenes, I still remember the conversation between her and prior Geoffrey before a very "delicate" operation. The author manages to write fluidly, there was never a dull moment in the story, no matter what she was describing. And the ending was perfect, it's a little sadistic but the "mosquito" deserved it, and Adelia got her happy ending, maybe not a conventional one but you wouldn't expect anything else from a woman like her.

Be warned that there are a couple of very graphical scenes, so if you're faint of heart, this is probably not the book for you. But everyone else that enjoys a good mystery, be sure to pick this one up, and it's only the start of a series. Oh joy! ;-)

Rating: 4.5/5

1 comment:

The Holistic Knitter said...

I loved this book and the second one - enjoy ;0)