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.

Sacrifice by S.J. Bolton

A few weeks ago I mentioned that I’d signed up for Transworld’s Great Crime Caper reading challenge. Sacrifice, the debut novel by S.J. Bolton, is the first book I received from Transworld for the challenge.

Our narrator is Tora Hamilton, an obstetric surgeon who has recently moved to the Shetland Islands with her husband, Duncan. Tora has been told that the Shetlands are ‘one of the safest places to live in the UK’, so the last thing she expects is to find a dead body in a peat bog in the field beside her new home. To make things even more shocking the body has had the heart removed and is carved with symbols which match the ancient runes on the wall in Tora’s cellar. As Tora becomes more and more determined to find out what’s going on she discovers that someone else is equally determined to put an end to her investigations.

If you’re going to read this book you should be aware that it’s very gory in places, particularly at the beginning of the novel, when Tora finds the mutilated corpse. If you can get through this part you’ll be all right because the story then becomes much less gruesome, though increasingly dark and eerie, and soon develops into a fascinating and well-structured murder mystery. Tora, with the help of police detectives Dana and Helen, uses a whole range of resources to investigate the mystery and piece information together, from medical records and birth registers to bank statements and books of folklore.

The most interesting aspect of this book for me was the Shetland setting and the exploration of Shetland myths and legends. I’ve never been to the Shetlands and have never read a book set there either, so this was something new for me, and I thought S.J. Bolton perfectly evoked the atmosphere of these remote and ruggedly beautiful islands with their jagged cliffs, flooded valleys and the Aurora Borealis illuminating the night sky.

Although the Shetlands are part of Scotland they are deeply rooted in Norse history and folklore and some of these myths and legends become integral to the story, giving it a slightly supernatural aura. There’s a scene where Tora is reading about a particular myth for the first time which really sent shivers down my spine. In fact, the whole book is genuinely quite scary. There are a few chapters that you really wouldn’t want to read if you were alone in the house at night!

On a more negative note, sometimes I felt I was being given too much information all at once when it could probably have been woven into the plot more gradually. A lot of it was also hard to believe. Tora seemed unrealistically brave, taking needless risks and sneaking around murder scenes in the middle of the night. Of course, fiction doesn’t always need to be realistic and it wouldn’t have been much of a story if Tora had reacted the way I would have done and run a mile at the first sign of danger! And none of this really mattered to me anyway because the plot was so exciting and gripping.

Sacrifice was just what I needed after reading a lot of slower paced books recently. Perfect if you’re looking for a fast-moving, atmospheric mystery with a unique setting.

I’m an accessory in The Great Transworld Crime Caper!

After the success of last year’s Summer Reading Challenge, Transworld Publishers are hosting another great reading challenge for EU readers. This time there’s a crime theme, with a list of twelve crime novels to choose from.

If you’re an EU resident you can sign up for the The Great Transworld Crime Caper too! All you need to do is leave a comment on Transworld’s Between the Lines blog and start choosing your books. Transworld will then contact you for your address, they’ll send out your first book, and after you’ve read and reviewed it, you’ll receive the next one.

My three choices are:

1. Sacrifice by S. J. Bolton
2. Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin
3. Echoes from the Dead by Johan Theorin

Who else is participating in this? Have you read any of the books I’ve chosen?