Ariana Franklin is the master of historical suspense, and I love what she did in MISTRESS OF THE ART OF DEATH. My favorite part of the book is her mock-Chaucerian beginning, where she quickly sketches the different characters who are approaching Cambridge after their Canterbury pilgrimage, and shows a fine eye for detail, humor, and human insight.
Her protagonist — the inimitable and forthright Adelia — is an unusual character for a medieval novel, as she is a very intelligent, independent and free-going woman who is not allied with any particular church sect, any religious belief (she’s very modern in her agnosticism), or any racial or cultural identity (ie. raised Jewish/Christian, but not tied firmly to either one).
She is therefore an anomaly, and might be unbelievable in the hands of a lesser writer. However, Franklin makes Adelia believable by giving us direct access to her inner thoughts, which are full of self-doubt, logical assertions and love-lorn longings. This makes this strong and powerful woman accessible to the reader, and makes her every action more believable, even though her assumptions and actions are very modern. She is a forensic specialist (the art of death) and is a woman who has determined that she won’t get married (and thus, won’t be allied to any male’s power) — this makes her potentially weak, but it also gives her a great deal of autonomy.
I personally loved the twist ending, where the villain turns out to be a different kind of killer than you might have expected… and I love the clarity of her vision of the medieval world.
My wife recommended this book to me several years ago, but since I was deep in the throes of writing my own medieval mystery novel SINFUL FOLK, so I avoided reading Franklin’s work until I was done with a publishable draft. (I have the problem of getting derailed by other people’s good ideas.) I’m very glad I waited, as we approach similar ideas and stories from a different angle, and I’m glad to read Franklin with a fresh and uninhibited eye.
I’m now looking forward to reading — the next novel featuring Adelia !