Mistress of the Art of Death

by Dee

A best friend, Anne, gave me a copy of MISTRESS OF THE ART OF DEATH as a birthday gift. Perhaps the title spoke something to her that reminded her of me. It was a perfect gift, thank you, and I still enjoyed the book. This is a re-read of MISTRESS OF THE ART OF DEATH by Ariana Franklin, nom de plume of the late Diana Norman. She wrote four books continuing from this one, which of course I discovered very late after she passed away (2011), and now I am commencing a re-read before jumping to the second book in the series also with the purpose to write a proper review. I will read the other books under their UK titles.

I was once a doctor of the dead as well, though hadn’t the chance to be the best. I had enjoyed the company of death in my days, conversing with rotting or calcified bones to reveal the secret of what their lives once were. But then I wasn’t a doctor of the dead no more—partly my fault, but wouldn’t regret if I’d dare to put blames on others as well. Though I will put the blame on me on this one cause people seems to like you better if you blame yourself for your shit life, forgetting there might be external forces dropped upon you. They say it makes you a better person. I say, yeah—my pretty and succulent arse doesn’t agree with you. Similar to Adelia, I landed my pretty arse in England to master the language and art of speaking to the dead. Therefore, this book speaks in a louder volume to me than usual. I must admit reading this book as a doctor of the dead and then as an ex-doctor of the dead gave a different impact on the psyche. The review is written under the influence of the latter.

Mistress of the Art of Death

1171, Cambridge, pre-Campus life. I’ve found the map inserted in this book differ slightly from those accompanying Susanna Gregory’s books—which is when Cambridge University was in its blooming phase. No, no map overlaying needed on this one. I remember getting lost in Cambridge once, alone—not knowing where to go, mainly because I neglected to look at my tourist map as I gawked on the architectures of the mighty campus.

The Case: Prologue & Chapter One described a case of a child murderer and the locals accused the Jewish community. No, I am not going to comment on any religious bickering between humans here. It is what it is and no, that does not mean I am not woke. I just want to enjoy the book without being easily offended by every word I found. But—knowing how humans like to bicker about how they worship the best god to their versions, I felt the burden immediately with the topic. I could guess that sensible actions are not the option here. Hatred trumps everything, especially when you accuse someone as a child murderer.

Says who Chapter Two and Three are easier? No. Female doctor. Two frightening words, right? Absolutely incorrect if you guess that I will go down the lane of women empowerment speech here. I am more interested in the university where Adelia was studying: Scuola Medica Salernitana, founded in the 9th century with international members. I imagined that Adelia was a member of the mulieres SaleritanaeBut she mentioned that she was called Trotula—which led me to believe that Adelia character is the embodiment of the real Trotula de Ruggiero who was herself said to be famously known through the shores of 12th century England.

There is a lot to unpack in this book in regards to its characters. Adelia Aguilar, of course, is the main character here–I mean, Vesuvia Adelia something something Aguilar–I don’t even remember her full name, it’s too long. I think there was a Rachel in it… She was accompanied by Simon Mansur and made an unlikely group of newcomers to Medieval England during the reign of Henry II Plantagenet. I quite liked the way Ariana portrayed the character of Henry II. Adelia then met Gyltha and Ulf, which I hope also survive to make a reappearance in the next books.

Even though he is a part of the protagonist group of character, I didn’t pay too much attention to Rowley. As soon as I realised the tension between him and Adelia, I know he will be in the next books as well. He’s the ornamental Prince Charming in this matter. He’ll be safe, whatever happens. Unlike one very likeable character that Ariana decided to kill… ergh Ariana got surprises within the book, a plot twist that I did not ever imagine to happen—she kills off my candidate of the most likeable character. I sulked at Ariana because she kills him off. I thought he’d make a reappearance in the next book, THE DEATH MAZE. But no, Ariana decided, I’m going to make this person dead. Damn.

The ending… well, I must say it is a bit anti-climax. I wished for the damn culprit to be hanged or staked at the bridge or something. The ending was a little bit too pacifist for me. I imagined the brutal ending–not that the ending isn’t that brutal. It was just not brutal & gory enough for what the culprit had done to those children. I believe the person deserved a more brutal ending. I hate child killers.

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Recommendation

I loved MISTRESS OF THE ART OF DEATH! I fell in love with it again mainly because I can relate so much to Adelia as a mistress of the dead. If I can say, this is Kathy Reichs in the Moyen Âge settings—which is even better! I loved the oh-so-visible chemistry between Adelia and Rowley right from the start. It reeks of unspeakable tensions that needed to be solved—IMMEDIATELY—which they did, finally, in the latter half of the book. Oops, spoiler?

I don’t know why I think I can actually smell the dog as I read along. But I was indeed dead worried for Safeguard the Dog when Adelia tracked the supposed murderer to Wandlebury Hill. I also loved it cause I guessed the culprit correctly. This is mainly because I simply don’t trust people who are too nice—they usually have something hidden behind their niceness. I knew I don’t like this particular character right from the beginning and as the story went, Ariana Franklin did not actually give explicit clues at all hinting towards this person. But I just don’t like this character—which then proven correct when Adelia got to Wandlebury Hill.

In 2020, the mindset employed when reading this book is definitely different, especially with all the news stories about hate crime and racism and whatnot. I found myself a little bit jolted in awe when I realised the diversity of characters in this book set in Medieval England. As it is with Minette Walters’ books, in 2020, I liked how the issue flowed naturally and organically without it being shoved down my throat.

Even though I loved all the intrigues and unlikeliness portrayed in MISTRESS OF THE ART OF DEATH though, I don’t think it is suitable for the easily offended bunch who finds everything in their peripheral vision as offensive. There will be terms in this book (and I also assume in the next books as well) that are not suitable for those with delicate feelings. So, if you do not have the capability not to be offended, stay far the fuck away from this book! I don’t want to hear you whining and boycotting the late Ariana Franklin for any terms she chose to use in this series. Stay the fuck away, I tell ya!

I have been made unstupid—definitely not a word, but I made it a word. In page 81 of the Bantam Press print edition, I thought there was a typo because the first lines mentioned Sir Roland Picot, but as I went down the dialogue in the same page, the man was referred to as Sir Rowley Picot. And then I was educated by the book and several Google Search that Rowley is a form of endearment of Roland. Well… something to learn every day, right? Though I do think that it’s quite a stretch from Ro-land to Row-ley unlike Richard to Dick or Richie, Elizabeth to Lizz, Izzie, Beth, Bess, Eliza. It’s almost as far as Margaret to Peg, I guess?

I felt that I re-educated myself by re-reading this book. There are elements that I didn’t realise was significant and important when I first read it. I guess the life-changing decision led me to more education than I could ever ask. I didn’t think about reading more books on Scuola Medica Salernitana when I first read MISTRESS OF THE ART OF DEATH. Now, it’s different cause I was not drawn to Trotula before. I found value in re-reading a book ten years after I read it first because I can differently appreciate the words, the knowledge, and the story. Of course, Adelia successfully made me miss the days when I was conversing with the dead. But that’s not going to happen anymore, innit? In another ten years, maybe I will re-read this book again. That’s when I already forgot that I was once an ex-doctor of the dead.

Click here to read my review on the second book: THE DEATH MAZE.

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