Apr 28, 2010

Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin

Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin

The year is 1171, and in the town of Cambridge several children have gone missing. The first to disappear was a boy named Peter, who is rumoured to have been found crucified, while three others have yet to be found at all. The rumours about Peter were enough for the town to fall upon Chaim Leonis and his wife, members of one of the richest local Jewish families, and lynch them. The rest of the town’s Jewish population is being kept in the castle, out of fear (and a very much grounded fear at that) that they, too, will be killed.

Adelia Aguilar, an expert in forensic medicine, comes from Salerno with Simon of Naples and Mansur to investigate the disappearance of the children. Someone high up in the power hierarchy believes the Jews to be innocent, and it’s up to Adelia and her companion to find out who truly is behind the crimes – and what the criminal could gain from the town predictably turning against such an easy scapegoat. But a female doctor, a Jew and a Muslim make for a very strange travelling party, and before they can begin to investigate anything at all, they have to make use of subterfuges to be taken seriously. Not to mention to remain safe.

The fact that the protagonist of Mistress of the Art of Death is a foreigner gives Ariana Franklin the opportunity to explain several things about the social, political and religious customs of the Middle Ages in a way that feels absolutely natural to the reader – and this is an opportunity of which she makes very good use. The medieval setting was by far the thing that appealed to me the most about this book. I loved reading about the complex relationships between the three big monotheistic faiths, about medieval politics, about the motivations behind the Crusades (which weren’t as simple as I might have assumed), and so on.

I expected this to be a mystery largely based on political intrigue and on an exploration of the nature of prejudice, but unfortunately that turned out to be only a small part of the story. I say “unfortunately” because that’s what I wanted it to be about, not because there’s necessarily anything wrong with what the book actually is. But as I’m sure you know, expectations are tricky things. I’m going to say something that might be considered slightly spoiler-ish, though it’s revealed fairly early on (and no, it’s not the identity of the murderer or murderers). Please skip the next paragraph if you’d rather not know.

Mistress of the Art of Death deals largely with sexual violence. This is a topic that affects me, but it’s not one I shy away from. I want books about it to be written, read and discussed, as I believe that we have silenced survivors and swept the whole topic under the rug for long enough. However, perhaps because I wasn’t expecting to find it here, the abuse in this book bothered me more than it normally does. There was also the fact that I didn’t feel that anything new had been said about the nature, causes or consequences of sexual violence. While nothing about Mistress of the Art of Death is exactly graphic, the way the topic is dealt with felt a little pointless to me.

I like books with in-depth characterisation, and mysteries are of course no exception. Normally I’m interested in the motivations behind a criminal’s actions, but I don’t mind it if a book doesn’t go there as long as the characterisation of the investigator is rich enough to make up for it. That’s what Dorothy L. Sayers does, and I suspect that it’s what Ariana Franklin is going for as well. Adelia Aguilar is a well-rounded and interesting character, but I didn’t connect with her as much as I was hoping to. And one of the reasons why was the fact that she felt somewhat inconsistent to me.

Her response to the killer’s motivations is a perfect example of this – one moment she’ll say that it’s far too easy, almost a cop-out really, to dismiss people who commit horrible acts of violence as subhuman monsters, but the next she’ll turn around and do exactly that. All through the book I felt there was a divide between what Adelia professed to believe and her actions; between what readers were being told and what we were being shown. Of course, human beings are nothing if not inconsistent, but I’m not sure that this was done intentionally to illuminate her character.

The fact that Adelia is a woman in a man’s world provides several opportunities for commentary on the limitations of gender roles in the Middle Ages – and again, Franklin makes good use of them. I liked the fact that she draws attention to Adelia’s powerlessness and to the constraints that she has to struggle against as a woman. But I wasn’t completely happy with how this was done. I’m all for scoring points for feminism, but I prefer these themes to emerge organically from the story rather than to feel like they were purposely added to it – and sadly, that’s what Mistress of the Art of Death made me feel.

For example, the story includes a romance, which allows Franklin to show that Adelia lived in a world in which women had to choose between a private and a public existence; between a marriage and a profession. That’s a very real conflict, and yes, it’s infuriatingly unfair. I love many books that deal with that exact same theme, but those books tend to be a bit more…subtle, perhaps? In this case, I felt that the only goal of the romance was to illustrate that point. I felt this from the very onset, and as a result I couldn’t bring myself to believe in the love story at all.

Finally, there’s the fact that Franklin makes use of what is, for me, the most irritating writing trick in history: when Adelia discovers the identity of the killer, this is not immediately revealed to the reader. Granted, she reveals it only one chapter later, but there’s absolutely nothing that annoys me more than this, especially in a close third-person narration. We’re supposed to be inside Adelia’s mind; we’re seeing her world through her eyes; we feel what she feels; we know what she knows. Why is it, then, that this one bit of knowledge is kept from us? The answer is obvious, of course – to maintain the suspense. But that very obviousness is what makes this trick so artificial. It irrevocably distances me from the character and pulls me out of the story. It makes me angry, not curious, because it feels too fictional to ever be effective.

I probably sound like I hated Mistress of the Art of Death, but I assure you that this is not the case. I just didn’t like it nearly as much as I was hoping to, which seems to be the story of my reading life these days. I’m tempted to vow that from now on, I’ll expect every single thing I pick up to suck, so that the weight of expectations won’t ruin any more perfectly good books for me. I’ll end on a positive note: I loved Franklin’s afterword, where she explains the research that went into the book and tells us just which bits were or weren’t anachronistic. As she explains, we don’t know enough about the Middle Ages to write a book set then that is one hundred per cent historically accurate, but she made an effort to make good use of what we do know.

Other opinions, mostly by people who liked it more than I did:
The Written World, My Fluttering Heart, Dear Author, Bookshelves of Doom, Reactions to Reading, Lost in Books, A Garden Carried in the Pocket, Laughing Stars, Books & Other Thoughts, Pag247, You Can Never Have Too Many Books, Some Reads

(Yours?)

31 comments:

  1. I am intrigued by this book Nymeth, and now very very keen to read it!!

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  2. I can't help but be interested in a book about a serial crime committed in the Middle Ages, and also covers feminism, anti-Semitism, etc. It makes me stop and say "hmmmmm". It is too bad it failed to fully deliver.

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  3. Oh Ana I hope this slump or bad luck or whatever it is ends for you soon. :(

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  4. I like the setting and the issues addressed in the book, so I might like it more than you did.

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  5. Interesting topic. I remember coming across a scene in England when I was there in '95 of a stone lighthouse where a marker told the story of 100+ Jews who were imprisoned and starved there around this same time period. A part of history I was unaware of. But it sounds like you have an unreliable narrator here, which really bugs me, too. Great analysis of your read.

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  6. It's definitely the story of my reading life lately, too. I've had this book for a while but haven't read it yet. Looks like I might put it off for even longer. Even the things you were interested in - like the exploration of medieval culture - are probably still going to bore me since I suspect I may have heard it before.

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  7. I found it interesting to read that a book set in the 1700s had a forensics expert! To me that seems so anachronistic... like CSI: Middle Ages! ;)

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  8. I quite liked this one (have recently bought book 2 as a matter of fact) but agree entirely that it has issues. I found that whole underground scene at the end unbelievable for instance. I probably like her historicals, written as Diana Norman, better, the best imo being The Vizard Mask.

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  9. Hmmm... you have me conflicted about this book! I have seen previous reviews that made me want to read it but some of the things that you highlight would annoy me as well... I might wait and leave this one for later.

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  10. It's too bad about the inclusion of sexual violence. What I certainly like about the otherwise just-average Brother Caedful series is the Middle Ages setting and thus "the opportunity to [learn] things about the social, political and religious customs of the Middle Age." But for me to opt to read a book including sexual violence it needs to be a necessary part of the plot *and* an exploration of the topic somehow as well so that it doesn't just seep into the reader's unconscious as a regular event.

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  11. I didn't finish this book, for (sounds like) exactly the reasons you weren't wild about it. I wanted more out of it than I felt it was delivering - expectations, man. They're a killer. I resolve at least five times a year to expect every book I read to be terrible, but I am sorry to report that is not an effective strategy. My mind covertly forms expectations anyway, unless somebody whose taste I respect has said "This book was disappointing" - in which case I probably won't read it in the first place.

    (Unless it is the third book in a superb trilogy. But if that were the case, I would really hope that nobody would find it disappointing.)

    (That parenthetical remark is not apropos of anything in particular.)

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  12. Hmm, now I'm torn! I think I would love the setting and all the medieval facts, but the fact that the story was slightly lumpy in it's execution makes me hesitate. I am going to have to think about this and decide if I want to read this one or not. I really appreciated this review though, it has made me a bit more discerning about this book.

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  13. There are so many good but kind of average books out there you're bound to run into them at times. Hope the one you read yesterday blew your minds with it's greatness. :)

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  14. This sounds like a very intriguing book. I'm not one to deny a good mystery! But it's never good when a story doesn't live up to your expectations, though.

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  15. I enjoyed reading this one, but thought it was pretty lightweight. You've just explained why!

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  16. I read this one right when it came out and was so excited to read it. I liked it but I was really bothered by the romance part of it. To me it felt like it was rushed. I know this is a series so I wondered why the writer didn't wait to develop that in future books. As much as I enjoy a bit of romance with my mysteries I don't just want a romance thrown in just because. It has to feel like it belongs you know.

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  17. Your review is very thoughtful and balanced. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, but there were several things that didn't work for me, including her unconvincing romance with what's-his-name. :-)

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  18. Aargh! I am so bummed you didn't like this as much as I did, Nymeth! Usually we're so similar in taste...
    next time, gadget!

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  19. I bought this for someone for Christmas a few years ago.

    I always hate when points are made bluntly instead of subtly, especially concerning proto-feminist characters- it's difficult to write without making her seem too modern. And then I always find pointless sexual violence off-putting. If you're going to put it in there, you need a good reason, I feel.

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  20. Elise: I hope you enjoy it more than I did. :)

    Sandy: The themes are definitely interesting, and I wouldn't want to discourage anyone from reading it. Several bloggers with excellent taste loved it, after all!

    Amanda: I hope so too :(

    Kathy, I hope so!

    Elisabeth: Franklin says she based the premise on a real story, so yeah, it actually did happen :\ My problem with the narrator is that I don't think she was meant to be unreliable at all, and yet I could never trust her.

    Meghan: Yeah, the things that made it interesting to me are probably things you're tired of reading about by now :\ I hope that when you do read it, you'll find other things to enjoy!

    Steph: lol, it WAS a bit like CSI: Middle Ages, yes ;) Another interesting thing is that Franklin based all the forensic procedures Adelia knows on real medical knowledge that was available back then. Medieval people knew more than I would have guessed.

    Cath: I'll keep The Vizard Mask in mind, as I'd definitely not say no to reading her again.

    Amy: I hope you enjoy it if you do pick it up! Most people seem to, so possibly I'm just being particularly picky :P

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  21. Jill: Yes, exactly - that's just why it bothered me. You worded it better than I could.

    Jenny: I very much suspect that my mind would do the same. *shakes fist at it*

    Zibilee: I'd definitely recommend giving it a try, as most people seem to like it better than I did. But best not to go in with unreasonably high expectations. That was my problem!

    Amy: It did! And now I'm heatbroken that the series is over *sobs*

    Emidy: It's always disappointing, but then again, it makes us appreciate good books even more!

    Jeanne: And while there's nothing wrong with it being lightweight, the problem was that I expected more.

    Iliana: That was exactly how I felt too. I also think it'd have worked much better if she had developed it more slowly over the course of the series, Harriet Vane and Lord Peter style.

    Stephanie: lol - you know, I actually can't remember his name either! That's how memorable he was for me ;)

    Aimee: Ah well...we still agree 9 times out of 10 ;)

    Clare: That usually bothers me too, but in this case I didn't even feel that her outlook was necessarily too modern. I just couldn't quite believe in her as a person, somehow :\

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  22. I've heard a great deal about this book- mostly positive- but for some reason always hesitated about it. I am glad I did, though, as I think the things that bothered you would bother me as well. I feel like sometimes, books like this can be really hit or miss.

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  23. hmmm...it still sounds good to me. Was the violence really more of a plot device?

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  24. Hmm, I don't know about this book, but thanks for your honest thoughts.

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  25. Ana, I have no idea where yo get your reading lists...but this book sounds amazing!

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  26. Aarti: Most people seem to love it, so don't let me discourage you! But yes, hit or miss is an apt description.

    J.T. Oldfield: Yes, I think so. I don't necessarily mind that, but I was expecting a political mystery.

    Andreea: You're welcome!

    Christina: Most people do seem to think so. I hope you have better luck with it than I did :)

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  27. I almost bought this book at the bookstore the other day. Like you, I like books with in-depth characterization and mysteries too. I'd like to get it one day. Thanks for the review, Ana!

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  28. You can add me to the list of those who liked it more than you did, but I will agree that it was spotty. The concept/set-up was much stronger than the ending. But I still really liked it.

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  29. You can add me to the list of those who liked it more than you did, but I will agree that it was spotty. The concept/set-up was much stronger than the ending. But I still really liked it.

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  30. I'm sorry you were a bit let down by this book - you raise some very interesting points in your review, though, which have made me think about my feelings for the book. I listened to the audiobook of this, and I can't help but wonder if I'd have felt differently had I had a sustained reading experiene rather than the piecemeal a bit here, a bit there kind of experience of an audiobook. I found it to be very gripping. I'm about to start the second one - audio again - we'll see how it goes!

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  31. I was a little afraid to read your post at first until I found out you felt the same way as me! Historical mysteries are my favourite genre and I've read a lot of them starting with Ellis Peters, and will always give them a try. But somehow with this book I couldn't quite connect with the protagonist and like you, felt the romance was a little forced. It wasn't bad, but it didn't satisfy. Maybe I've become a little too picky or read it at the wrong time. But there's been a lot of good reviews about this one which surprised me a little.

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.