By September 1, 2010 1 Comments Read More →

A Date with this Mistress?

mistress-of-the-art-of-deathI’ve been enjoying Ariana Franklin’s first Adelia Aguilar mystery, Mistress of the Art of Death. Set in Henry II’s twelfth-century Britain, the story concerns a young woman of Jewish descent, Adelia Aguilar, who has trained as a doctor, a kind of early forensic pathologist, in Salerno, Italy.

When a series of gruesome child murders in Cambridge is blamed on the local Jewish population, the king requests the expertise that only Salerno has to prove the innocence before the locals massacre an important part of his tax base. Adelia is sent to investigate along with Simon, a brainy “fixer” type and Mansur, a dark-skinned eunuch bodyguard. They must hide their Jewish ancestry from the locals and various pilgrims and crusaders while hunting a killer with a sexual obsession.

This novel can be read many ways: as a twisty forensic mystery, as an atmopsheric historical piece, or as a delightful clash of unusual and eccentric characters. There’s even a dash of romance thrown in to the mix. Adelia is both very clever and obstinantly frustrating, unable to match her scientific mind to the foibles of the superstitious humans who surround her. In Cambridge, such folk abound, and Adelia’s attempts to blend in are used cleverly both for humor and as a plot device.

Adelia and the extent of her medical knowledge are anachronistic, but I don’t think the politics or descriptions of Cambridge life are. Regardless, I’m not sure that in this case anachronisms will be bad for your book group discussion. It could be very interesting to identify these anachronisms and discuss whether or not they damage the book.

Those who enjoy this book can look forward to three more in the series (so far), which explore more of the political intrigues and fascinating settings of the period.

This book also begs to be combined with others. Your group might explore the era or the historical characters of Henry II and his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine further through the historical novels of Sharon Kay Penman, or you could try James Goldman’s play The Lion in Winter or the films adapted from it. The Canterbury Tales, whether an unadulterated translation of Chaucer or Peter Ackroyd’s recent, more highly adapted take, would make a good companion read. You might also try other mysteries, whether one like The Name of the Rose which features a similar setting or the contrast of a contemporary forensic mystery by Kathy Reichs or Patricia Cornwell.

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About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction (2007) and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups (2009).

1 Comment on "A Date with this Mistress?"

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  1. shavers@crc.losrios.edu' Shelley says:

    Slightly off-topic, but the cover of that book reminds me of a very literate (and fun) Canadian series I just discovered: Slings and Arrows. For those who like Shakespeare, they throw in a few really riveting scenes. A skull plays a large part!

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