Mistress of the Art of Death, Ariana Franklin

[asa book]0060817267[/asa] Karen W. (comment number 24) told a very good story about forgetfulness. So Karen, please send me your postal address and I’ll send out Ariana Franklin’s two recent historicals. You may remember that I reviewed City of Shadows which I really admired. Yesterday I finished Mistress of the Art of Death, set in 1170 in the reign of King Henry II. I think I have to say that Ariana Franklin (aka Diana Norman) is the logical heir of the Dorothy Dunnett crown: she is the new queen of historical fiction.

[asa book]0399154140[/asa] Mistress is a wonderful novel, full of interesting characters, with an intriguing plot. It’s one of those novels where much of the conflict comes from cultural differences. The Mistress of the Art of Death is a woman physician (Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar), trained at the famous school of medicine in Salerno, and a specialist in listening to the dead. That is, she is a coroner, trained to examine the dead to see what they have to say about the circumstances of their demise. Set this character in Cambridge circa 1170 when they were still flinging women in rivers to see if they were witches, and you’ve got all kinds of conflict. England at this point was not, shall we say, enlightened.

There is a mystery: four children tortured and murdered; there is a community of Jews who are blamed, some of whom are lynched absent of any evidence, and the rest driven from their homes and businesses; there is the very intelligent and crafty king: Henry II, who is not pleased about this treatment of his Jews, mostly because they are shut up in protective custody and the income he derives from their taxes is sorely missed. And there are the three people called from Italy (a female physician, a Jewish investigator, and a Saracen bodyguard and servant) by Henry to sort this business out.

There is also a romance, a mature but very lively romance between Adelia (the physician) and another major character… but I won’t give too much away.

What I especially liked about this novel was the way it brought Henry II to life. He was a progressive thinker and instituted many excellent changes to the legal system, among other advances, but he is remembered primarily as the king who got into a tussle with Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, a conflict that ended when some over eager knights of Henry’s solved the problem (or so they thought) by killing Becket in his cathedral. There have been movies about Henry — his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine and the fights about who would follow him as king (The Lion in Winter, among others) and of course Becket (play and a film version which has recently been restored and re-released –). I saw Becket at a very young age, because of course it was de rigeur viewing for Catholic school kids in the 60s (along with The Singing Nun), as it is strongly pro-church and rah rah Becket.

I seem to have been led astray. Let me summarize: the novel is excellent, and I am happy to send it, along with the also excellent City of Shadows, to Karen W.