Friday, March 29, 2013

Review: Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin

Title: Mistress of the Art of Death
Author: Ariana Franklin
Genre: Historical Mystery
Publisher: Berkley
Published: 2008
Pages: 420

Rating: 7 out of 10

I chose this book as one of my three Halloween Reads of 2012, which was a wonderful excuse to read it, since I have been hearing good things about it for quite some time.

Mistress of the Art of Death is the first in a mystery series of the same name about the equivalent of a forensic pathologist in 1170 England. Adelia examines the dead, who metaphorically "speak to her" as she tries to ascertain how they died. Her talents are called upon when children start disappearing in Cambridge, only to reappear - dead. The Jews are being largely blamed, and chaos threatens to strike as the townsfolk begin to riot against them. Adelia, upon reaching Cambridge, immediately begins her investigation, but finds herself growing more horrified the closer she gets to solving the mystery and finding the killer.

I loved every bit of this book, and I am greatly anticipating the others in the series.

I was very worried, after reading the inside cover, that Adelia would be cast as the typical, and grossly historically inaccurate, modern feminist heroine. After all, I have never come across forensics in historical fiction, much less in the middle ages. That alone would have been a unique aspect to this book, but we also have a woman doctor practicing this rare form of medicine. In other words, unheard of.
However, Franklin's heroine is refreshingly realistic. She is more akin to a stubborn, grumpy old man than a hands-on-hips, sword-waving girl.
I was very relieved, and even more pleased to find that I loved Adelia. She is solemn and speaks factually and to-the-point, which most men find unsettling. She tends to approach things from a medical standpoint, so when she is faced with the prospect of romance, she can't seem to get her head around the fact that the human body can be looked upon in ways other than for healing - which I found to be funny. Adelia is a very world-weary, knowledgeable woman, and I found it charming that she is also so innocent about things that most women would have experienced by her age.

The other supporting characters are equally well written. I loved Adelia's companions, Simon and Mansur. Adelia's love interest, Rowley Picot, was also a character I loved. He is a great example of a hero that female readers just might fall in love with. I loved the first paragraph when the reader learns that he is attracted to Adelia, even though she isn't his "type."

I know that the comparisons to Law & Order: SVU will be common, due to the medical examiner plot, but I can't resist acknowledging it here. I expected that I would picture Adelia as Olivia, but I didn't. They are very different characters. However, I couldn't help but picture Simon as Elliot Stabler (the relationship between Simon and Adelia is very similar to Elliot and Olivia's) and Mansur as Finn.

The overall feeling of this book was eerie, chilly, and foreboding, making it a perfect pick for Halloween. While I wouldn't exactly call it Gothic, there were definitely quite a few scenes that would qualify.
The mystery itself was a gruesome one, and Franklin isn't in the least bit afraid to include horrible details and plot elements to her story, with quite a bit of mature content. There are some heavy themes here, to be sure, and this is no light read.
The conclusion of the mystery was satisfying, even though I did wish that there had been more of a surprising twist. I didn't guess who the murderer was (and unless it's by chance, you probably won't either, since it isn't written that way), but I did guess that Ulf (a young boy who Adelia befriends) would be come involved. That was pretty obvious from the very first time Adelia speaks to the boy.

Amidst the terrible details of the children's torture and deaths, and the dark atmosphere to this book, there were also some dashes of clever humor in the story. I like when an author includes a few light scenes in a story, without trying too hard to be comical. Franklin does this pitch perfectly.

I loved this book, and will be reading more of both this series and of Ariana Franklin. Recommended!