Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Review: Mistress of the Art of Death

This book is the Summer 2009 Highly Rated Book Group online discussion over on LT. I can't believe I missed it when it first came out in 2007. This is going to be one of my top 5 of the year. It is so good, that I galloped ahead and stayed up 1/2 the night to finish listening to the audio, which is masterfully done by Rosalyn Landor. I could hear the medieval street noise, smell the river, and see the mists. If you like historical fiction, forensic pathology suspense thrillers, medieval pageantry, romance, and intricate plots, this is the book for you. The characters are unforgettable and the story is many layered:
  1. Young children are disappearing from the town of Cambridge, and turning up later as skeletons showing evidence of unspeakable torture and death.
  2. In England at that time, money lending was illegal. Only Jews were allowed to lend money, so they were tolerated. However the Jews were accused of killing the children.
  3. Henry II, needing the Jews to keep his country solvent (no bishop could build a cathedral, no knight embark on a Crusade without borrowing) orders the entire Jewish population of the town into sanctuary within the castle walls. Still the killings continue.
  4. At this same time, the town of Salerno in Italy is turning out trained forensic scientists and doctors. Henry sends to his friend the King of Sicily for a "Doctor of Death" to solve the mystery of who is killing the children.
  5. Sicily sends its most noted Doctor of Death,Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar, perhaps not realizing that in England, women who 'practice medicine' are more often seen as witches. Adelia is accompanied by Simon the Jew of Naples, and Mansur, a Saracen eunoch who acts as a bodyguard....a sort of medieval CSI team.
Those are just a few of the layers. Add in a Prior with a bad prostrate, an Abbess with a lousy attitude and even worse abbey management skills, an adorable child right out of Dickens, some rather rude and nasty knights, a delightful eelmonger/housekeeper and her helpers Mathilde A and Mathilde B, and you have the beginnings of a wonderful bubbling cauldron of a story. And let's not forget the dog named Safeguard....her description is so great, I can almost smell him myself. All the ingredients blend into an absolute page-turner. Just when you think it's solved, something else twists and you're off on another rollercoaster of emotion, and terror. In spite of the horror of the subject, Franklin manages to inject spots of humor that leave you chuckling with glee. The scene where she catherizes the poor Prior is worth the price of the book. The humanity and compassion displayed by all members of the team bode well for future books in the series. These are people you want to get to know. This is a woman you can root for. This is the first of what is promised to be a series about this wonderful female forensic pathologist. I've already ordered the next in the series: The Serpent's Tale.


  1. I haven't heard of it either. I'm so glad you gave this great review and alerted me to it. It sounds really good!


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