A rare female doctor, trained in Salerno, is recruited to head to England along with two men in order to solve an important crime. Adelia is a mistress of the art of the death; she “reads” bodies in order to find out exactly what happened to them. In short, she does autopsies, and her skills are essential to try and find out who has been taking and killing small children in Cambridge. The Jews have been blamed, of course, despite the fact that they’re obviously innocent, and they have even been killed by townspeople, so they are all holed up in the center of town. Adelia’s job is to find the murderer, without getting murdered herself.
Sometimes being unfamiliar with mysteries is useful, because I just loved this book. I mean, I’m probably going to spend this entire review gushing about it mostly because I can’t help myself. I’ve done what I normally don’t do and read reviews prior to composing my own, and have discovered that quite a few people thought the mystery was too predictable for the book to be interesting. I suppose that some aspects were predictable – the character who commits the murders is always a suspicious character though I didn’t guess which one – but I never read mysteries for the whodunnit aspect. I usually don’t even guess. Taking this solely as historical fiction, I just adored it.
I liked it so much that I didn’t even particularly care that Adelia seemed so anachronistic to me. After all, there were female doctors trained at Salerno (which I knew, but the author kindly clarifies as well) and it’s not outside the realm of imagination that one would develop as independent a spirit as Adelia does, even if it was unlikely. As a modern reader, I thought she was fantastic all around, and I loved the romance that developed and her eventual response to it. I loved even more that it was a romance between two imperfect people who never planned on it happening, but were so drawn in by one another that they simply could not resist.
I also enjoyed all the little medieval details that Franklin sprinkles throughout the narrative. I really felt the atmosphere, which doesn’t always happen when reading historical fiction. I was particularly pleased with her depiction of Henry II, who she describes pretty much precisely as I’d imagined him to be, as a clever man with an unfortunate temper that betrays his intellect. He doesn’t show up often, but when he does he quite steals the show, as I think the king would have done in the Middle Ages.
I can easily say that this is the first medieval novel I’ve read in over a year that I wasn’t ready to pick apart with inaccuracies. The simple truth is that I enjoyed it far too much. Since everyone in the novel was fictional, apart from Henry II, I didn’t have to worry that something was wrong and I didn’t know about it. The case itself was fictional. Even the small details that Franklin includes which didn’t happen she explains in her afterword – including the origin of her idea for the book, a case which genuinely did occur.
I absolutely can’t wait to get to the next book in this series – I’ve already requested it from the library. I loved Mistress of the Art of Death and would recommend it to anyone interested in historical fiction or historical mysteries.
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