In 1171 AD England, Henry II is annoyed at events in the town of Cambridge. Four children have been murdered horribly, with no obvious killer. The townspeople blame the local Jewish population, who have been forced to take refuge in the town castle as a result. What irks Henry, primarily, is that this fuss is causing a wealthy town to struggle to pay its taxes. He pleads with the King of Sicily to send him a party of investigators, including a person who can read the cause of death by examining a body, a ‘master of the art of death.’ The medical school at Salerno is famous for training such individuals, but it is just as infamous for being one of the few places in Europe where many of those (provided they are wealthy and well-connected) who would not ordinarily be able to obtain or use professional training are allowed to do so. Which is why, in addition to subtle and wise Simon of Naples and skilled warrior Mansur, Henry gets Dr. Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar, a mistress of the art of death. Henry is not particularly happy with this turn, but if Adelia can get the job done he’ll be happy to reward her and send her on her way. Whether she’ll survive to be rewarded, or whether Henry will truly let such a valuable talent go, however, remain to be seen.
The Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin is the first of four books in a series, all following Adelia Aguilar’s adventures and travails while working for King Henry II. Adelia makes for a likeable and determined protagonist, the medieval setting is vividly evoked and the supporting characters are generally well-developed. This first entry suffers from an affliction common to series starters: it strives first and foremost to provide a sound base for the rest of the series, with the result that it is heavy on scenery and characterization with a mystery that is not quite as tight as it could have been. The mysteries are indeed much stronger in subsequent books, though the characters and setting remain the strongest part of the series.
I would strongly recommend this work for fans of Kathy Reichs and Patricia Cornwell who don’t need their forensic thrills to be set in the modern-day. The book also works as an interesting look at Medieval England, so fans of Philippa Gregory or Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth might also be rewarded here.
Description: An atmospheric and mostly credible medieval forensic thriller, though the mystery in this first installment is not the main draw. Does not shy away from the occasional graphic scene, so this is definitely not a cozy.
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