Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Serpent's Tale by Ariana Franklin

Those who read last year’s Mistress of the Art of Death, a forensic mystery set in 12th century Cambridge, England, will not be disappointed by this second installment in the series. These books are so much more than mere historical mysteries, which often contain jarring dialogue and anachronistic details. Our heroine is Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar (Adelia for short, thank goodness), raised by a Christian and a Jew in southern Italy and educated by Muslims to be a doctor – more specifically, to be a forensic pathologist.

Having been summoned by Henry II to England to solve some particularly ghastly child murders in Book 1, she has been commanded to stay in England in case he should need her, and need her he does – when his beloved mistress Rosamund Clifford is poisoned, Adelia must not only find the murderer but also prove that it was not Queen Eleanor – for if it was, another civil war might rip England apart.

Accompanied not only by her faithful companions Mansur (a Muslim who accompanied her from Italy) and plain-spoken old Gyltha, but also by her baby Allie (product of a love affair with a man who is now unfortunately Bishop of Saint Albans), Adelia reluctantly sets forth – and is instantly embroiled in intrigue, murder, and decaying corpses.

Adelia is a deliciously complex woman. Dedicated and scary-smart, she has spent most of her life focused on her science, and only since arriving in England has her heart begun to catch up to her brain. She is fond of but exasperated by England, with its gorgeous land and warm people, but with a most primitive way of thinking about many things - most frustratingly for Adelia, about women and their proper role in life. Adelia is bull-headed and has few social graces - she yells when embarrassed and her attire is a disgrace - but her intelligence and love of her work make her fascinating.

This book is not without flaws. Neither Gyltha nor Mansur are given much opportunity to become much more than stock characters, and baby Allie is practically a cardboard figure of a baby (although she does wet her clouts and need to be nursed). Less seriously, there isn’t much sense of the 12th century, although Ariana Franklin takes pains to explain in an afterword that several details that seem anachronistic are actually accurate. I suppose I prefer my Middle Ages as stinky and earthy as possible, but this is just a quibble; it’s pretty certain Henry II’s subjects didn’t think of themselves as either quaint or backwards. All in all, this is a well-balanced mixture of detective story and medieval saga, sure to satisfy fans of both genres.

No comments:

Post a Comment