And Absorbing Read and Escape into Medieval England

Mistress of the Art of Death  - Ariana Franklin

This historical mystery set in Henry II's England was the gift of a friend. Thank you, Kandice, you chose well. The central figure in the novel, Adelia Aguilar of Salerno, is a "Mistress of the Art of Death"--the closest thing the middle ages had to a medical examiner. And as unlikely as it might seem, a female doctor like Adelia is not a politically correct anachronism, was not unique--although she comes from perhaps the only place in the world that could have produced her. For from the 11th to the 13th Century the Schola Medica Salernitana in Salerno was the most celebrated center of medical learning in the Western world--and it taught and graduated both men and women. So Adelia isn't made of whole cloth. Yes, there were and are strong women in every age and position in society. As one friend put it, making them credible is all a matter of the right context--and I think Franklin gives her that.

The book is a great blend of historical fiction, mystery and romance. I think it's strongest in the first category though. The romance and mystery is satisfying enough, but I don't think by themselves would make me want to read beyond the first book. I didn't think the romance was really developed enough. But it at least is no "insta-romance" and after all it's not the book's focus. In terms of the mystery--well, I think the main culprit was far too obvious, far too early on. Even if there was one surprising aspect to the mystery, and one that did fit the clues. The style is strong in some respects. My one complaint was the head-hopping. This isn't really omniscient--it doesn't have the overarching narrative structure and voice for that--it just comes across as sloppy third person limited, and if the story weren't strong in other ways, that might be a dealbreaker. But I grew very fond of the characters in the course of the book, and Franklin's way with the setting was beguiling. She's great at bringing the middle ages to life in all its misogynistic, anti-Semitic, superstitious glory--but showing some of the complexity that makes it perhaps not so easy to put down as simply barbarous, with the glints of humanity here and there. Maybe at that not so different from our own age in that respect.

Franklin's medieval England is as credible, and just as involving, as Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael series of mysteries. This is a series too, and I'm eager to spend more time in this world. Although, alas, it will be a brief tour. There are only four books, and since Franklin died in 2011, there will be no more of them.