With Mistress of the Art of Death, transport yourself back to 12th century England. Henry II is losing money in his kingdom because the Jews of Cambridge are holed up in a castle to save their lives. Children are being murdered and someone has accused the Jews.
This gruesome action against defenseless children cannot continue — but not for the reasons we might first consider. In this gripping novel, Ariana Franklin appoints an amazing and unlikely observer who, with an incredible cast of characters, weaves a tale that holds readers from the start.
To help his fellow regent, the King of Sicily sends two of his greatest minds to Cambridge. Simon of Naples, also Jewish, is a keen thinker who, as a man, can go anywhere and do anything. Adelia is a doctor and teacher in Italy — and a woman who looks on the dead for clues on how they died. Accompanied by a huge Arabian eunich for protection and Adelia's former nursemaid for propriety, they travel across the English channel — and, quite frankly, back in time.
Not all of Europe is created equal, then or now. In Italy, women were not full members of society, but a brilliant mind was less likely to be quashed (especially those adopted by physician-teachers already respected in society). Adelia is accepted, perhaps grudgingly, in her hometown.
But they're not in Salerno anymore. Adelia pretends Mansur, the eunuch who speaks no English, is the doctor; she guides him in Arabic and "translates" the doctor's findings. The nursemaid, an old woman, died on the journey over, and Adelia still mourns her — plus, Adelia discovers, she is missing a chaperone, which limits Adelia's ability to simply walk to the market. Simon is a man, which buys him some freedom, but as a Jew he is aware of his precarious situation.
England is medieval, lacks hygiene and open minds. Thankfully, Adelia's crew encounter Prior Geoffrey early in their travels. After providing him with emergency medical care (and his awareness through the procedure), he enables their investigation, all the while keeping Adelia's secret.
In this novel, readers are captured from the first by the interesting characters and amazing situations. I call them "amazing," but perhaps I need to call them "barbaric" or "antiquated." I hate cold and dirty places, and Franklin captures Cambridge with an accuracy and richness that transports readers to Adelia's side. We join her on the hillside with pilgrims, in the castle with frightened people, standing next to the aggrieved mother who taunts the "murderers" behind castle doors, in the convent where she slowly realizes what makes the "buzzing" sound she hears.
Humans always look for the enemy in "other," and through Adelia, Franklin introduces us to a fascinating array of "others." Ariana herself is "other." As an unbiased observer, she examines Cambridge society to find the killer. Are the disadvantaged — those easily hated and despised — apt to commit these heinous crimes because they are outcasts? Or is the killer someone of position? Do the people of Cambridge point to "other" because it is too horrible to think one of their own killed them?
Through Franklin, we see how little times change. We see brilliant minds, the end of friendships, the beginning of others, love among the least likely, "cleverness" that trumps "smarts," and the horror of horrors: murder.
I found this book hard to put down. Many were the night when I stayed up late to finish "just one more section." The story careened to an incredible crescendo, and the last 40 pages are simply astonishing. I recommend this book to those who like good stories, strong characters, true love, cleverness and English society.