Grave Goods (Mistress of the Art of Death Series) by Ariana Franklin (2009) is the third book in the series followed by Mistress of the Art of Death and The Serpent’s Tale. The series is told in third person but follows Adelia Aguilar, a Salerno doctor who works as King Henry II’s agent as his mistress in the art of death investigation in 12th Century England.
In this entry, Adelia is asked by the King to authenticate two skeletons that’s heard to belong to the legendary British warrior, King Arthur and his queen, Guinevere. They are supposed to be buried in the sacred place of the Isle of Avalon. King Henry II needs a dead Arthur to squash the Welsh rebellion and a holy relic wouldn’t hurt to add much needed funds to the King’s coffers in order to rebuild the abbey that was burned down to the ground.
The story opens with an earthquake in Glastonbury. A monk, Brother Caradoc, spots three cowled figures burying a coffin in the fissure between two pyramids in the graveyard. He sees this as he rushes to retrieve important historical records from the abbey. As the earth shakes, Caradoc is felled by a heart attack and with his dying breath, he tells his nephew, Rhys the bard, about his “vision” of King Arthur’s final resting place. It isn’t until some 24 years later that the news of Arthur’s resting place reaches King Henry II and moves him to action.
Adelia and her companions, her young daughter Allie, her Arabic manservant, Mansur and the child’s nurse, Gyltha have been run off from Cambridgeshire. The town’s doctors have complained to the archdeacon about Dr. Mansur stealing all their patients from them. Adelia, being a woman, cannot act as “doctor” without being charged as a witch. So, she and Mansur have been using a ruse where she pretends to be his interpreter as he doctors the sick. But the town’s doctors have convinced the church authorities that the two are “heretics” and so Adelia and company are forced out of the fenlands.
Adelia & the rest soon meet up with Emma Wolvercote, the young woman from the previous book (The Serpent’s Tale). She’s a widow who’ve been “touring the estates” that her husband left behind and ensuring that her two year old son, Pippy, is acknowledged as the heir. Because the marriage was “forced”, the lack of witnesses and her mother-in-law’s refusal to acknowledge her existence has made claiming her property a challenge.
Emma ends up using a German warrior, Master Roetger, in a barbaric form of ‘battle by trial’ where the winning champion wins the property dispute. However, King Henry II introduces trial reform and thus we see this turn into a nice civilized court trial by story’s end. In the meantime, King Henry II summons Adelia and tells her about the bones found at Glastonbury. Matters are complicated further by a fire and a dispute between two abbeys: Glastonbury and Wells. The Bishop of St. Albans, Rowley Picot, is sent to resolve the conflict and runs into his ex-lover, Adelia.
In “Grave Goods” the main story arc is divided up into several parts and I’m not going into all of them here. I will say that certain threads are branched off into others like Emma’s conflict with the dowager of Wolvercote manor (as mentioned) and the arsonist behind the fire of the abbey (those crazy monks). The author does leave a thread unresolved to be taken up in the next entry in the series (we have another sick villain on the loose).
I like how the author has decidedly made Henry Plantagenet, a larger than life hero. Instead of his being seen as the murderer of Thomas à Becket, he is seen instead as a forward thinking man well ahead of his time, a man who brought England out of the Dark Ages with law reform. He is notoriously known for his temper and has a stressful relationship with the church. Aside from all of that, he is clever, charming and arrogant. I always look forward to his scenes in the story because he makes a great entry and exit.
Yes, there is a romance in here but it is subtle and viewed as a bonus by me. You see, Adelia and Rowley have a past history and they have a daughter. He is now a bishop for the King, a man of the church and she is an forensic scientist who speaks for the dead. In Adelia’s mind, the two are incompatible. Since the two broke up, Adelia has struggled with her decision regarding their relationship but she makes some necessary changes due to a near death experience regarding her belief about women and ‘independence.’
I’m a history buff who enjoys a story that is deeply set in a time period where you have feudal landholding disputes, frankpledges and tithing, church politics, forensics, mixed with pagan rituals, legends, barbaric customs, sexual immorality and madness. If you’re looking for a historical medieval mystery with solid writing then you should pick up this series. If I had a complaint with ‘Grave Goods’, it would be with the pacing as it was not consistent (but then I am reading the arc not the finished book). I felt the middle part of the story dragged a lot but other than that, I enjoyed this story. My grade, B.
Other works by this author include: Mistress of the Art of Death, The Serpent’s Tale, City of Shadows and under Diana Norman she also writes historical fiction of which I’ve read and highly recommend The Vizard Mask*, Blood Royal*, A Catch of Consequence and Taking Liberties. Most if not all except her *older titles are available in ebook at your favorite etailer.
Edited: This story is told in third person but it’s the type of POV where one forgets that it is third person, sorry.