Sunday, January 23, 2011

Mistress of the Art of Death, By Ariana Franklin- Review

As some of you already know I'm a huge history buff.  In fact I went through a four year period where I only read non fiction historical books and not a drop of fiction.  Needless to say, during that time, I covered a fair amount of ground and read everything from famed European Royal biographies (Henry VIII, Elizabeth II, Mary Queen of Scott's, Mary Antoinette, the various Louis's, etc.) to more obscure topics like diaries of British women living in British Imperial India, histories of the black plague, or the writing of the Oxford English Dictionary. So a well written piece of historical fiction is always on the top of my to-read list when I stumble upon it.

Well written historical fiction, of any genre, is a tricky thing to come by.  The author has to be extremely well versed in all the details of the time period they are writing about, as well as a good fictional writer.  They should bring the time period of their books to life with tidbits of fascinating information you're unlikely to have learned in high school history classes, and couple them with great characters and an intriguing plot.  Understandably, many authors don't have the time or inclination to research a time period fully enough to do it justice in anything other than a background kind of way, I.E- description of period costume, characters traveling in coaches  etc.

Ariana Franklin, pen name of author Diana Norman, does not have that problem.  Her series of medieval mysteries involving the charming and complicated Adelia, doctor to the dead, run rampant with fascinating and controversial English history from the reign of King Henry II.  Each page is packed with historical discovery, well rounded and lovable characters and a fascinatingly complex mystery.  Think CSI 12th century England, then throw in some shocking immigrants and rural Englishmen and you'll start to get the gist.  On her research page for The Mistress of the Art of Death she says she researched the 12th century for 15 years, and realized she was done when:
... asking an obscure question of a professor of legal history in Ohio, he wrote back: "Look, we don't know. Your guess is obviously as good as mine."

As someone who has a much smaller, and yet not too shabby knowledge of history I was suitably impressed by her research, and never once felt she was glossing the surface of the time period.  In the end it's treated as it should be, a character in and of itself, fully fleshed out and always done justice.

And you know what? The story was pretty damn good too!

Adelia Aguilar, a Salerno doctor to the dead, is sent to England, by the King of Sicily ,to help with a murderer stalking the medieval town of Cambridge.  There are many dangers for Adelia in England, not the least of them her own standing as an unchaperoned, unmarried, foreign female doctor with a Jew and an Arab accompanying her.  Throw in the hunt for an elusive and very dangerous child killer and the situation quickly becomes downright unmanageable, but her inquisitive mind and stubbornness persist and you'll have to read it yourself to see if she'll be taken down by the killer or the church first.

By the end Adelia, Gyltha, Simon, Mansur and Ulf had me wrapped around their fingers, so completely smitten with each of them, I could hardly wait to dig into book two- The Serpent's Tale.  A fabulous read, I'd recommend it for history buffs and mystery fans alike.

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