She's back, that feisty, clever, relentless coroner of the 12th century. In The Serpent's Tale, readers encounter Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortiz Aguilar nearly two years after her first experience with the English crown and has settled in the fens with a couple of familiar faces (Glytha, Mansur) and one very special one we've yet to meet.
Alas, her idyllic life in Oxfordshire as the local doctor is short-lived. Henry — King Henry II of England, to be precise — has a problem only Adelia can solve: someone has killed Rosamund, Henry's beloved mistress. Adelia needs to find out who.
Oh, if only it was that simple.
First of all, she is a woman in primitive England, little more than chattel and certainly not all that valuable, except to a couple of men (and thank heavens one is a monarch). Second of all, she's educated, which was singular enough in her hometown of Salerno — but in the backwaters of England, it's unheard-of. Third of all, she is on the king's business. And anyone who's anyone knows that heavy is the head that wears the crown — and all the easier to topple said crown, or even said head.
So, she again teams up with Mansur — er, Doctor Mansur — to examine Rosamund and investigate the murder. For it is murder, complete with a mysterious hag in the forest providing delectible morsels for the king's "pretty." Rowley, the king's man to the end, heads the traveling party and again proves invaluable.
This second investigation takes Adelia and her entourage to Godstow Abbey, a cloister of smart, educated women (nuns and pensioners) who are as rare a treat as Adelia. With Adelia's keen eye and clever mind, we meet Mother Edyeve, whom author Ariana Franklin describes as having "the disinterested calm of elderly people who had seen everything and were now watching it come around for the second time." She is surrounded by interesting people, as the abbey is its own village with two churches and many villagers.
So much happens, from the moment Adelia assures Rowley of Rosamund's fate, to the arrival at Wormhold Tower with its labyrinth (and innuendos that are worth a chuckle or two), to the surprising arrival of an unexpected visitor and the aftermath.
More than fair Rosamund fall prey to the brutality of murder, and Adelia sees the series of unnatural deaths as a progression. Why are they being killed? What is the connection?
Who is foul enough to take another's life: Queen Eleanor, on the cusp of a civil war with a country less than a generation past its last such internal battle? Was it Lord Wolvercote, who hungrily eyed the abbey for its land and cursed the women who ran it (and who protected the young woman whose parents promised her to be his dowery, er, wife)? Was it Master Warin, whose young cousin befell his own treacherous (and suspicious) end? Could it be the Abbot of Eynsham, whose ambition was as bright as his cruelty?
Woven into this tale is a new perspective: the life of royalty and its court. From the moment members of the royal court sweeps in with too many people and an incredible amount of expectation, the world changes for everyone. Not only are the king and queen's sycophants swept along in the wake, but also the innocents who become temporary toys. One learns that the only thing worse than being ignored by the rulers of the land is being noticed by them. Adelia does not escape Eleanor or Henry's attention, and she pays dearly for every moment in which she draws their eyes. However, Franklin shows the distinct difference in personality and expectation between the monarchs locked in their dance of power, intrigue and love — and the people who surround them.
The book sweeps along at a quick pace, but it never loses its readers. I personally fell very much in love with Henry, a man Adelia rightly sees as too far ahead of his time and his people — but in the right place for a monarch. Adelia herself admires and appreciates him, and I share her sentiment. The final scene of the book is revealing and delightful, and leaves me hungry for the next tale of our Mistress of the Art of Death.
One last thought: while you needn't read the first book to understand this one. However, you may choose to, if only to revel in the characters — and you won't be disappointed. Just don't let it hold you back from this delightful volume.