The Serpent’s Tale (2008) by Ariana Franklin is the follow-up to last year’s Mistress of the Art of Death. The third person narrative follows forensic investigator Dr. Adelia Aguilar, whose job it is to unearth the clues that only “the mistress of the art of death” can decipher.
The stories are set in medieval times where women doctors are viewed as witches thus creating the need for artifice in order for Adelia to do her job. Her Arabic manservant, Mansur, must pretend to be the “doctor” and she as his translating “assistant” in order for her to circumvent trouble with the church and the label of “heretic.”
In the last book Adelia was sent to help King Henry II restore order after three children were found murdered in Cambridge and the town was blaming the Jews. After her success of solving that crime, King Henry II charms her into staying. After all, his cousin, the King of Sicily, loaned her out to help him reconcile his turbulent relationship with the church and help him regain control of the populace. Adelia didn’t plan on staying long in this “backward thinking country” but King Henry successfully persuades her to stay.
In “The Serpent’s Tale”, almost two years have passed and Adelia is now a single mother, living out in the fenlands with her friend, Gyltha. Her ex-lover and current Bishop of St. Albans, Rowley Picot needs her assistance and summons her in the name of the King. King Henry II’s favorite mistress, Fair Rosamund has been poisoned and the King is pointing the finger at his estranged wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Picot moves with urgency in unraveling the culprit behind Rosamund’s murder because of the political implications this may lead to: civil war.
The author’s addition of Rosamund Clifford and the rumors that surrounded her death made for a suspenseful read. Very little is known about her life (aside from folklore) only that she was beautiful and that she had a long relationship with one of England’s most powerful men. Speaking of which, I like how the author has made King Henry II into this larger than life character slash hero who is very charismatic and powerful rather than the villain he is portrayed in history for his role in the indirect death of Thomas à Becket. While his scenes are few, they are memorable and my favorite.
There’s a reason why King Henry won’t let Adelia leave: she’s his secret weapon in death investigation and a woman far ahead of her time. IOW, no one else has her skill set. However, the attitude towards women in medieval England is always a shock to Adelia. She grew up with liberal parents in Sicily and was trained in Salerno which was a forward thinking institution of it’s time in allowing women to train as doctors. Adelia is always having to watch her step and a few times she slips up but she understands the precarious slope she climbs and she has added vulnerabilities, for one, her 18 month old daughter.
The “Art of Death” series has enough forensic detail in it to attract readers who enjoy forensic suspense novels from Karin Slaughter to Patricia Cromwell except the stories are set in medieval England. The mysteries are moderately challenging. I’ve heard complaints about the author’s use of anachronistic terminology. The author explains why she chooses to use modern terminology in certain instances and it’s simple: for ease of reading. I had no problem with that but your mileage may vary. In the end, however, her characters are true to their time period and as usual she does a marvelous job of recreating that period well.
This is another re-posted review as the original review sits at Sybil’s website (my blog was down at the time). While the two novels can stand alone, readers will miss out on the dynamics that has shaped Rowley and Adelia’s relationship and certain events that are mentioned in The Serpent’s Tale are somewhat related to what happened in the previous book. The series is a duet thus far so it is easy to catch up on. Just do yourself a favor and read the first book, Mistress of the Art of Death. You’ll find another series and another heroine to cheer for and yes, there’s a nice romantic subplot but readers like me view that as an added bonus. My grade, A.
*Both books are available in ebook. The Serpent’s Tale is currently hardcover and the paperback release is slated for Feb 2009. The author is currently working on another untitled entry in the “Art of Death” series.