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Thursday, March 20, 2008

Mistress of the Art of Death (trade, $15), by Ariana Franklin

From the beauty of its wide-open spaces to the rankness of its life-in-the-town smells, Cambridge, England, 1171 AD, comes alive in Franklin’s writing. If the reader can get past the gruesome, graphically described murders of children, the reward is a medieval feast.

There are multiple characters and Franklin brings them to life. Adelia Aguilar, the equivalent of a modern-day coroner from Salerno, Spain, and the title’s “mistress of the art of death,” along with Simon, a Jew, and Mansur, a Moor, are sent on a mission by the King of Sicily to rescue the Jews of Cambridge who have been implicated and persecuted in the murder of several children in the area. The trio is aided by a prior whose ailment they cure, a mysterious tax collector for King Henry II, a rough-mannered but fair-thinking woman of the fens, her nine-year-old grandson, and a mangy, malodorous dog.

The flow and eloquence of Franklin’s language lies in counterpoint to the brutality of the murders and the harshness of the times. Unlike many novels of historical fiction whose heroines are preternaturally independent and therefore damningly anachronistic, Adelia’s obdurate self-reliance seems very much in place. Although the scope of what the author covers -- compact lessons about life in a medieval English town, the Crusades, the contretemps between Henry and Thomas à Beckett -- is vast, the reader does not feel the weight of being lectured and the book is not annoyingly padded.

The reader must heed this repeated warning, however, the book is violent in a very contemporary way. The climactic scene is bloodily descriptive and a subordinate plot’s resolution is grim.

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