The Death Maze by Ariana Franklin

This is the second novel in Ariana Franklin’s Adelia Aguilar mystery series, set in the 12th century. My feelings about the first book – Mistress of the Art of Death – were quite mixed (I liked the medieval setting but found the dialogue and the main character too modern), but I wanted to try at least one more in the series and came across this one in the library a few weeks ago.

If you’re new to these books, I don’t think it’s necessary to have read the previous one before reading this one. The Death Maze, which has also been published under the title The Serpent’s Tale, begins with the poisoning of Rosamund Clifford, Henry II’s mistress. Henry’s estranged queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, is immediately suspected, being the person with the most obvious motive for wanting The Fair Rosamund dead. If this is true, the repercussions could be huge and could lead the country into civil war. The king needs someone to investigate on his behalf – and so he summons Adelia Aguilar, his ‘mistress of the art of death’.

Adelia, before coming to England, had studied medicine at the famous medical school in Salerno which accepted female students as well as men. Since solving her first case for Henry II (a series of child murders which formed the basis of the previous novel), she has been living a quiet life in the countryside with her baby daughter, Allie, and it is with some reluctance that she agrees to undertake this new task. The king cannot be refused, of course, so Adelia soon finds herself setting off for Rosamund’s castle, escorted by Rowley Picot, her former lover, now the Bishop of St Albans. During their investigations, they are taken captive by Eleanor and her supporters, but when snow begins to fall the whole party become trapped for the winter at the nunnery in Godstow, where the mystery deepens as more murders take place.

In some ways, I enjoyed this book more than the first one. I thought the mystery was more complex – and certainly not as dark and disturbing as the previous one. I didn’t guess who the murderer was, although I had my suspicions, but I think we were given enough clues to work it out with no unfair surprises or information being withheld.

This is a period of history I always find interesting to read about and I felt that the portrayals of real historical figures in this book, such as Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, were very different from the way they have been depicted in other novels I’ve read. Eleanor is certainly not the sympathetic, admirable character she is in Elizabeth Chadwick’s The Summer Queen trilogy, for example – she comes across as quite selfish and petulant. Most of the other characters, though, are fictional – as is most of the plot, including many of the details of Rosamund Clifford’s story. I did like the descriptions of the maze of hedges surrounding Rosamund’s tower; the scene where Adelia and her friends try to find their way through it reminded me of the famous Hampton Court Maze episode in Three Men in a Boat.

‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry,’ Adelia shouted. She faced Rowley. ‘Don’t you see, if a maze is continuous, if there aren’t any breaks, and if all the hedges are connected to each other and you follow one of them and stick rigidly to it wherever it goes, you’ll traverse it eventually, you must, it’s inevitable, only…’ Her voice diminished in misery, ‘I chose the left-hand hedge. It was the wrong one.’

As for Adelia herself, I can’t make up my mind about her. I do like her as a character because she has all the qualities I admire in a heroine – intelligence, courage and independence, as well as a passion for her career which made her turn down the chance of marriage to Rowley as she knew that would bring her medical work to an end. However, she is the sort of heroine I would expect to find in a much more modern setting; her behaviour and attitudes make her very unconvincing as a medieval woman. I could say the same about the language Ariana Franklin uses, which I think also often feels far too modern for the time period. I suppose whether or not you will enjoy these books depends on how important those things are to you, but I always struggle to overlook them.

I’m not sure if I will read any more of the Adelia Aguilar books, but I might try one of Ariana Franklin’s earlier novels published under her real name, Diana Norman.

Winter Siege by Ariana Franklin and Samantha Norman

Winter Siege I hope everyone had a good Christmas! I have an appropriately wintry book to tell you about today before I get round to posting my end-of-year list, probably on Tuesday or Wednesday.

Ariana Franklin (a pen name of Diana Norman) was the author of the Adelia Aguilar mystery series, of which I’ve still only read the first, Mistress of the Art of Death. As you may know, she sadly died in 2011, leaving Winter Siege unfinished, but the book has now been completed by her daughter, Samantha Norman. Winter Siege is not part of the Adelia Aguilar series, but a standalone novel set during the period of English history known as the Anarchy.

It’s 1141 and the country is in the grip of a civil war as King Stephen and his cousin, the Empress Matilda, are battling for the English crown. In the Cambridgeshire Fens, an eleven-year-old girl is captured by a passing band of soldiers, raped and left for dead. The child’s way of dealing with her trauma is to wipe the whole incident entirely from her mind, so that by the time she is discovered by Gwil, a kind-hearted mercenary, she can’t remember her name, where she lives or anything about her past. Gwil renames her Penda and allows her to accompany him, disguised as a boy, while he builds a new career for himself as a travelling entertainer.

Moving from place to place, the two of them impress the crowds with their displays of archery while Gwil continues to search for any signs of Penda’s attackers – his only clues being a scrap of parchment carrying a message in Greek and the knowledge that the soldiers were accompanied by a monk smelling strongly of an unusual herb. Eventually, fate will take Gwil and Penda to Kenniford Castle, home of Maud, a sixteen-year-old ward of King Stephen.

To ensure the safety of her castle and her people, Maud has been forced to marry a man much older than herself – the brutal, drunken Sir John of Tewing, a supporter of Stephen’s. But when Sir John is struck down by illness and the Empress Matilda arrives at Kenniford asking for protection, Maud must decide whether to switch sides. This is a decision that will place the castle at the heart of the civil war and all of Gwil’s and Penda’s archery skills will be needed to help defend it.

I really enjoyed this entertaining medieval novel. As with Mistress of the Art of Death, I found it very atmospheric and evocative of the time period. The mystery aspect of the novel following Gwil’s search for the evil monk was slightly disappointing, but there was a second mystery that I found more interesting – and this involved the identity of an old abbot who is dictating the story of the Anarchy to his scribe, several decades into the future (in 1180). These sections provide a sort of framework for the rest of the novel and help to explain some of the historical background, while also making us curious as to who the abbot really is and how he knows so much about what happened at Kenniford Castle.

The book is called Winter Siege and so far I haven’t mentioned either winter or sieges, but I can assure you that both do play a part in the story. Snow is falling throughout much of the novel and one particularly snowy night forms the backdrop for one of the book’s most memorable scenes, when Gwil and Penda meet Matilda for the first time. Later in the book, our characters find themselves trapped in a besieged castle, which is when the various threads of the story are brought together.

Bearing in mind that this novel was written by both Ariana Franklin and Samantha Norman, it all seemed like the work of one author to me; it never felt uneven or disjointed. I don’t know how much Franklin had managed to complete before her death or if she would have taken the story in a different direction…but I think she would be pleased if she could read the finished version.

Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin

This is my second book for the Great Transworld Crime Caper and is the first in a series of historical mysteries by the late Ariana Franklin. I knew nothing about this series but Mistress of the Art of Death appealed to me because of the medieval setting (I love books set in medieval England).

This book has an unusual heroine. Her name is Adelia Aguilar and she is a trained doctor, very rare in the year 1171. Adelia is from Salerno, where women are allowed to attend medical school. Her speciality, however, is as a ‘doctor of the dead’ – in other words, she is skilled in performing autopsies and finding out the causes of death. When several young children go missing in Cambridge and the city’s Jews are blamed for the disappearances, Adelia is sent to England to investigate.

As I said, I love reading about medieval history and Franklin touches on many different aspects of the period – from the big things, such as the relationship between the church and the monarchy, to the small, such as the clothes people wore and the food they ate. Adelia, being Italian, is unfamiliar with the politics and customs of 12th century England, which allows the reader to learn along with her – so no need to worry if you don’t have much knowledge of the period. Despite some very modern dialogue and Adelia’s distinctly 21st century thought processes, everything else felt suitably ‘medieval’. Setting and atmosphere are so important in fiction and this is an area in which I thought Franklin excelled. It wouldn’t really be fair for me to comment on the historical accuracy as I haven’t studied the 12th century in any detail but I would say that if you’re looking for a serious piece of historical fiction which is correct in every detail then you need to look elsewhere. Accept this book for what it is though, and it’s an enjoyable read.

The writing in the prologue and opening chapters feels quite light and humorous and I expected the whole book to have the same tone, but when Adelia begins to investigate the mystery things start to feel a lot darker. I should point out that the story does revolve around the abduction and murder of children which isn’t nice to read about; it’s quite graphic in places and a bit disturbing. As for the mystery itself, I didn’t guess who the murderer was, but then I wasn’t really trying to guess. Sometimes I prefer not to attempt to work things out and just enjoy the story – and this was one of those occasions.

I found Adelia a fascinating and engaging character although, as I mentioned earlier, she thought, spoke and behaved more like a woman from the 21st century than the 12th. She’s a strong, independent person who is constantly questioning the role of women in society and has a very modern outlook on medicine, the law and life in general; I liked her but she wasn’t a believable medieval woman. Most of the secondary characters are well-rounded and interesting, particularly Adelia’s housekeeper, Gyltha, and her surly but endearing grandson, Ulf – and I loved the depiction of Henry II.

I enjoyed Mistress of the Art of Death and I look forward to being reacquainted with Adelia Aguilar in the other three books in the series. Sadly, Ariana Franklin (Diana Norman) died in January this year aged 77.

I received a copy of this book from Transworld for review.