REVIEW: The Serpent’s Tale by Ariana Franklin
Dear Ms. Franklin,
Last year we were introduced to Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar, the “Mistress of the Art of Death.” Brought from Salerno to help solve a brutal series of murders, she proved so helpful that Henry II, exercising his royal right to run things whatever way he damn well wants, decided to keep her in England in case he might need her skills again.
It’s taken 18 months but now Henry’s snapping his royal fingers in the form of one Bishop of Saint Albans, aka Adelia’s former lover and father of her bastard child. Henry’s beloved mistress Rosamund the Fair has been poisoned — oops no, make that killed, and the blame is being flung straight at his Queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, who recently escaped from a palace prison in Henry’s French holdings and is headed back across the channel. Henry and Eleanor have their marital problems, Henry and his sons have their filial problems and if Adelia can’t figure out who really did Rosamund in, and Henry punishes Eleanor leading their sons to rebel against him, England will have Civil War problems. Again. And no one wants that.
As with all of your books, I’m immediately placed in whatever time period you’ve chosen to use. This time it’s England during the twelfth century about a generation after one of the worst Civil Wars on record. Henry II, son of Queen Matilda who fought it out with King Stephen, brought peace back to the island and his vision of what the country can be is mainly hampered by the Church which still hasn’t forgiven him for attempting to curtail its power. Henry’s appointee to the Bishopric of Saint Albans is Rowley Picot who has a long history with both Henry and Eleanor. He’s mainly Henry’s man though that didn’t stop him from being willing to become a Baron instead of a bishop so that he could marry the woman he loves.
It was Adelia who knew that marriage would end her career as a doctor and who extracted a promise from Rowley to leave her and not contact her, even after their daughter was born. The fact that these two aren’t together saddens me and yet I can understand Adelia’s decision. Forensic pathology isn’t just misunderstood in England, it’s against Church law and Adelia could be killed for her investigations. As you show us, pathology isn’t just something Adelia does, it’s what she is and she can no more give it up than stop breathing.
She also knows that the Church is trying to find a way to remove Rowley from his position and the knowledge that he’s fathered a child, despite the fact that he’s far from the only Church official who’s done so, is a perfect way to do that. I can also understand that her anger at the situation finds an outlet against Henry in general and Rowley in particular. And that she’s reluctant to leave her safe haven in the Fenland and once again risk exposure for what she does. It’s not just her life at stake anymore, now she’s got a child to consider and as any mother knows her child’s welfare and safety come first. What she can’t turn away from are the horrible images presented to her in plain English by the people she loves who survived the wars just past: of family dead, of sisters raped, of fathers conscripted, of villages burned to the ground. Royalty and the nobility might bay for war but it’s the little people who suffer.
I’m glad that we get to see a little more of Henry in this story than the previous one. What a man. It’s easy to see how his subjects both loved and feared him and probably at the same time. He’s definitely not a person to take lightly. Eleanor, as you show, is almost a match for him and absolutely a match for almost anyone else in England at the time. I can almost see the reunion scene between Peter O’Toole and Katherine Hepburn – wait, I mean Henry and Eleanor. After twenty years of marriage to her I could also see why he’d turned to unassuming and politically undemanding women for some peace and quiet. I love his last comments to Adelia and his pointing out the loophole in Rowley’s oath. Obviously there’s to be more from this trio and I can’t wait for it.
I did wonder why you
My heart ached for Emma. Poor, poor Emma and all women of then and now who were mere objects for men to use as pawns and for pleasure. I felt not a bit bad as I savored her enjoyment of her freedom. I would almost dislike Rowley for turning away from Adelia except that she demanded it and that he told her in such unadorned words how much she still means to him. I found it much easier to believe what he said than any fancy courtly love terms and it’s much more in keeping with his personality – eschewing such fancy things as he did.
Poor Adelia doesn’t really get to do a full autopsy on anyone in this book but her detective skills both with and without bodies is key to solving the many mysteries. I noticed that it’s most often the women in the story who pick up on exactly what she is. The men might be told, might actually even see her working and yet they quickly turn, almost desperately, to Mansur to be the actual doctor.
Once again I felt I was in not-so-merrie-olde England, this time stuck in a convent during a bitterly cold winter with the dark lit only by puny candles and single lanterns. I can see the dark as the troubles looming if the deaths aren’t solved and that Adelia and Henry are the candles. It’s amazing they don’t set each other off like firecrackers. I can only hope you’ve got more stories left to tell about all of these characters and that you tell them quickly. B+