Aimee's Reviews > Mistress of the Art of Death

Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin
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's review
Nov 14, 2009

it was amazing
Read in November, 2009

In coming to the decision to purchase this book, Mistress of the Art of Death, I did my background research first. I visited a fair few blogs that had reviewed the book, and found that the reviews were so entirely positive that I couldn't wait to get my grubby paws on the book myself. The bloggers were not wrong (thank the gods). This novel is a gloriously delicious read.

Set in the Middle Ages as a medieval mystery, our protagonist has been asked to travel to Cambridge (United Kingdom) from the Middle East, to research the mystery behind a group of local children who have been tortured to death and mutilated in a similar manner to one another. Short in stature, Dr. Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar of Salerno is a strange and unlikely heroine, and a Doctor of the Dead, meaning she is a medically-qualified examiner of dead bodies. Fiesty and scientifically-minded, Dr. Aguilar has little other choice than to work undercover, considering this is medieval England where female doctors are few and far between because of society's view of women. Add to this the fact that she can apparently derive messages from the bodies of the dead and Dr Aguilar's the perfect candidate to be accused of witchcraft and set to burning. And so, under the wing of her valiant protector and old friend Simon of Naples, Dr. Aguilar acts as the servant assistant to her own Arab slave, Mansur, who plays the role of 'Doctor' to all external prying eyes.

As a particularly valuable doctor's assistant, our headstrong protagonist struggles with the case of the mutilated kidlets on both a personal and professional level, and her search for the killer becomes more and more desperate, as further children are picked off by an unknown murderous beast. But could the animal be closer than she thinks?

I read this book in one sitting. That in itself should alert you to how much I enjoyed this read, considering I have the attention span of a gnat when the book waives from awesomeness for longer than a few pages. And the book is 507 pages long. So, I think you'll agree - no mean feat.

The reason it's such a robust dish of perverse playfulness, I believe, boils down to the expert writing. It's a perfect balance of detail and sparseness, and makes you forget that this medieval period could have been a bit boring for the casual reader of history. That's if anyone less expert had written this book. In fact, the style reminds me a bit of another little masterpiece, Ken Follett's The Pillars of the Earth (little?! Hah!), although Mistress of the Art of Death is less focused on lifetimes and more focused on moments. It's what makes a fast-paced story, I guess! If you like the sound of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales with a splash of The Da Vinci Code then this book is for you.

Besides being a cracker of a crime thriller, Mistress of the Art of Death is an intensely satisfying historical read too. There are so many paths this book could explore further - the persistence of a little disease called 'cholera', Jewish/Islamic/Christian fireworks, gallant knights returning from crusade, scientific enlightenment intruding on religious fervour, corrupt and ignorant priors and prioresses...the list is extensive. YES, I will admit - there are some historical follies rather than facts, but I promise you the story's entertainment will have the most uptight historian turning a blind eye to its mistakes. And as it's set in the period when mighty Plantaganet Henry II was occupying the throne, the author puts a fascinatingly rare and positive spin on the reign of a king who has only been known to history for commanding the murder of Thomas Becket, the then Archbishop of Canterbury.

If you really want though, you can go barging past all this historical 'nonsense', and there's still a bloody good read to be found under the rubble.

As for characterisation, Dr Aguilar herself is amazing - I don't quite understand, being a hopeless romantic myself, why I am drawn to this woman who has 'no time for love' and little time to be emotionally swayed by the horror of the children's tortured bodies. She is so far beyond the submissive sterotype of a Middle Eastern woman it seems to make perfect sense to put her into a doctor's role in the middle of the 12th century. She is fighting against prejudices that not even modern time can necessarily remedy, but of course as it is with the most admirable women of sense, strength and integrity guard inner empathy and vulnerable hope. And yes, for all the romanciphiles out there - there're a few heated moments for your imagination to enjoy.

For true lovers of crime fiction, some of the twists aren't all that surprising, but it'll still keep you entertained for long enough to see if you figured out the clues correctly. If you're not into crime fiction this doubles as a fantastic historical fiction novel as well - just don't take it too seriously. If you're a fan of neither genre, I still challenge you not to enjoy this book.

Yep, I gobbled this book up, and then licked each of my fingers afterwards. It's that good.

Rating: 5 perfectly scrumptious stars for Mistress of the Art of Death.
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