A young doctor (really a forensic specialist) from Italy finds herself being sent by the King of Sicily to Cambridge, where she is supposed to inspect the bodies of the children and try to determine as much about their death as possible. Her companion, Simon of Naples, will assist her in determining who murdered the children. Of course a young woman with such skill is unheard of in England during this time period, although some people have heard about the medical school in Italy that allows women to study there, but few of them actually believe it. Therefore Adelia is at risk of being called a witch, and of course no one takes her seriously. She must be sneaky and clever, and the more she and Simon discover, the more it becomes clear that the children of Cambridgeshire are in great danger. If they cannot find the perpetrator soon, further deaths are sure to follow.
This is the kind of book that, as I was reading it (listening to it, actually), I found myself wanting to tell everyone about it, and I wanted to put copies into everyone's hands. It is an excellent combination of so many things that I love to read - a gritty historical novel with many fascinating details of England in the early 1100s, combined with a story that features a strong, intelligent female protagonist, a murder mystery with tantalizing (and dark) clues, captivating, multidimensional characters, a bit of romance, and a relentless pace and tension that kept me thinking about the story and itching to get back to it whenever I had to set it down.
It is dark and at times gruesome, as it deals with the murder of young children in a truly horrific way, so be forewarned. But there is humor in unexpected places as well, as in this scene in which Adelia, who has set herself up in the town as a physician's assistant (who would ever believe that she is the actual physician?). The pretend doctor is Mansur, her traveling companion/bodyguard, who speaks Arabic. So Adelia pretends to translate for him, when in reality she is dispensing her own medical advice:
Adelia was in the hall, wrangling with Dr. Mansur's last patient of the day; she always kept Wulf to the end.
"Wulf, there is nothing wrong with you. Not the strangles, not ague, not the cough, not distemper, not diper bite, whatever that is, and you are certainly not lactating."
"Do the doctor say that?"
Adelia turned wearily to Mansur. "Say something, Doctor."
"Give the idle dog a kick up his arse."
"The doctor prescribes steady work in fresh air," Adelia said.
"With my back?"
"There is nothing wrong with your back." She regarded Wulf as a phenomenon. In a feudal society where everybody, except the growing mercantile class, owed work to somebody else for their existence, Wulf had escaped vassalage, probably by running away from his lord and certainly by marrying a Cambridge laundress who was prepared to labor for both of them. He was, quite literally, afraid of work; it made him ill. But in order to escape the derision of society, he needed to be adjudged ill in order to avoid becoming so.
Adelia was as gentle with him as with all her patients - she wondered if his brain could be pickled postmortem and sent to her so that she might examine it for some missing ingredient - but she refused to compromise her duty as a doctor by diagnosing or prescribing for a physical complaint where none existed.
"How about malingering? I'm still a-suffering from that, ain't I?"
"A bad case," she said and shut the door on him.
The only consolation to the feeling of loss I felt as the book ended was the knowledge that there are two other books featuring the inestimable Doctor Adelia that await me. The narration of the audiobook is excellent - Rosalyn Landor does a wonderful job. I heartily recommend this one to any who enjoys historical mysteries - I am certain it will be one of my favorites reads of this year.
Books in the Mistress of the Art of Death series:
1. Mistress of the Art of Death
2. The Serpent's Tale (also published as The Death Maze)
3. Grave Goods (also published as Relics of the Dead)
4. A Murderous Procession (also published as The Assassin's Prayer)
Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin; narrated by Rosalyn Landor (Books on Tape, 2007)
Also reviewed at:
Lost in Books: "It’s hard to combine history with a mystery thriller – and, in fact, some people have taken issue with some of the historical details of this novel – but for my part, this was a gripping, entertaining read."
Reactions to Reading: "Although it runs to 502 pages I gobbled up this book in a couple of settings, wishing I had the patience to take things more slowly because I didn’t want it to end but being unable to resist the pull of just a few more pages."
The Written World: "This book has a lot going on in it. It has the mystery aspect of who is killing the children and why now after so many years with no apparent deaths. Romance even comes to call in this book, even though the majority of the people have sworn off relationships for religious and personal reasons, but are starting to wonder if they made the right choice."