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REVIEW: Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin...

Dear Mrs. Franklin/Norman,

franklin-madeath-drm.jpgWhat can I say? I finished “Mistress of the Art of Death” late in the evening after reading non-stop for almost 200 pages. My heart was racing, I was glued to the book and if a fire had started somewhere in my house, I honestly don’t think I would have noticed until I turned the last page. Then I would have grabbed my cat, my dog and my copies of your books before running for the door.

I closed the book and lay there, stunned and happy, as I tried to absorb the total story, the ending that wasn’t the end and the ending that was. The various characters who became real for me, the times in which I was immersed, the clues to the mystery that grabbed me from the start and as evil a villain as I ever hope roasts in hell for all eternity. The display of English Common Law had me wishing, as you implied, that Henry II were better known for more than ordering the death of Thomas ÃÂ Becket because it should be his legacy to the English speaking peoples. And while this isn’t truly a romance book, readers will be rewarded with one between two complex and fascinating people.

It was delightful to again visit the people of the Fens, the true English as you described them in “The Morning Gift” and at times they are odd. They can also be fanatical, prejudiced, desperate, shrewd, vocally incomprehensible and stubborn. But they’re above all the parents, uncles, grandparents, siblings and friends of four murdered children who deserve justice.

And the person at the heart of the story, the one determined from the beginning to speak for the children who couldn’t speak anymore — and whose screams had mercifully ended — is Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar, the mistress of the art of death sent from the University of Salerno at the order of the King of Sicily by request from his relative, the King of England. Used to being treated with some respect, or at least tolerated, in the only University in Europe that awarded degrees in medicine to women, Adelia has to walk a tightrope in England. Not only are women not allowed to practice medicine there, but any who try could be killed as witches. Church law also forbids exactly what Adelia does, dissection and examination of the dead. Add to this the fact that she’s a foreigner and in the company of a Jew and a Saracen and her mission looks hopeless.

Viewed with suspician or disdain by most, it takes a timely display of her medical knowledge to gain the trio the break they need to begin the investigation. Once started however, Adelia and Simon of Naples are relentless. Little by little, piece by piece, clue by clue they will see the mystery to the end. They will fight on when almost all hope is lost, they will persevere in the face of death and the evil that brings it, they will speak for the murdered children and work to clear those unjustly accused of the crimes.

As with many of your books, I stopped several times throughout reading it to head to the computer to broaden my knowledge of things you mentioned. In the story, we get just enough facts or information needed for a scene or plot point without it turning into an information dump just to prove your research. Yet the tantalizing references make me want to know more and draw me into the art of discovery. I can’t tell you how satisfying this is. And even though you needed to rearrange some things to fit into this story, you still managed to base them on historical facts and informed us in the author’s note.

I think that people with disparate interests will enjoy “Mistress of the Art of Death.” It’s a historical, a romance, a mystery, a medieval CSI and a fantastic book. A friend and I both admit that we treat your books like gold, hoarding them and then one by one allowing ourselves the pleasure of savoring them. This is a book that lots of readers should allow themselves the pleasure of trying. A


Available in ebook, hardback and (in Jan 08) mmp.

You can read another opinion of this book at Avid Reader’s site (Keishon). It’s like a bonus dueling review.

Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.


  1. Marg
    Dec 14, 2007 @ 16:16:18

    I really enjoyed this book when I read it too! Can’t wait for the next Adelia book to come out early in the new year.

  2. K. Z. Snow
    Dec 14, 2007 @ 16:24:04

    This book sounds absolutely fascinating. Only about a half-dozen novels in the past year have seriously piqued my interest. Thanks for bringing it to our attention, Jane!

  3. DS
    Dec 14, 2007 @ 21:12:19

    This was a great audible download as well. Highly recommended. Nice to see him not overshadowed by Eleanor and his brood of contentious children.

  4. Jayne
    Dec 15, 2007 @ 07:38:55

    ‘Nice to see him not overshadowed by Eleanor and his brood of contentious children.’

    That is a bonus, isn’t it? I get tired of Eleanor sometimes.

  5. Susan/DC
    Dec 17, 2007 @ 12:32:16

    If you want to read about Henry and his role in establishing the English legal system, try to get your hands on a copy of Diana Norman’s Fitzempress Law. It’s OOP and very HTF — and generally very expensive if you do find it — but I live in Washington DC and read the copy in the Library of Congerss (anybody may read the LOC’s books, but you have to be in DC to do so unless you’re a member of Congress). He’s a secondary character, but the whole issue of trial by one’s peers is central to the plot, and Henry comes across quite well.

    As for Mistress of the Art of Death, I also enjoyed it, but then I’ve enjoyed every one of her books. I was a little sad at the way Henry manipulated the Adelia/Rowley romance at the end (don’t want to go into spoilers), but I’m eagerly awaiting the second book in the series.

  6. Jayne
    Dec 17, 2007 @ 19:53:24

    I actually have a copy of “Fiztempress’ Law.” Someone didn’t know the value of what they listed on and I almost injured myself racing to buy it. I’ve been saving it and a few other DN books.

    Re: Henry’s manipulation of Adelia. I found it to be very in character for him. He’s a king and he’s Henry. He’s going to go for and get what he wants anyway he can manage it.

  7. Susan/DC
    Dec 18, 2007 @ 12:25:49

    I’m now insanely jealous — I need to hang out on the book auction websites more. Let me know if you ever read FL, because as much as I enjoyed it I’m a bit puzzled by something at the very end and would love to get your thoughts.

    One thing you don’t mention about Franklin/Norman is that many (but certainly not all) of her books have Jewish characters and have to deal with antisemitism. She handles the issue very well, I think, without bludgeoning you with it. There’s a very humorous scene in FL, for example, where this is dealt with. In her Taking Liberties prejudice is also dealt with, although in this case it is filtered through racism rather than antisemitism. In The Vizard Mask, a Restoration-set novel, one of the underlying issues in the relationship of the H/H is his view of her because she’s a woman and therefore seen as something less. She’s so good at making you think about what life was like to historical characters having to deal with these things in the era before Title IX or the Civil Rights Act, yet never, ever being less than entertaining. I admit to being something of a Diana Norman fangirl.

    As for Henry’s manipulation, it was definitely in character. But the implication of it made me a bit sad. Again, I don’t want to give details that may get into spoiler territory, but there is a way in which I’m very traditional, and Henry’s actions indicate that this version of the HEA is now blocked off.

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