Review of “Mistress of the Art of Death”

I was gutted to hear about the death of Diana Norman, British writer and journalist, and wife of Barry Norman (also a well-known British journalist, and face of the BBC’s Film Review programme for most of the 80s and 90s).

Writing as Ariana Franklin, Diana Norman was the author of the “Mistress of the Art of Death” series, and it seems a fitting tribute to talk about these on my blog today.

The first book is set in 12th-century England. The bodies of several murdered children have been discovered in Cambridge. The Jews are blamed, and are being persecuted by the locals. This troubles the King, Henry II, who is rather fond of the Jews, mostly because they pay him a lot in taxes. He calls for the King of Sicily, a land advanced in forensic medicine, to send him a “master of the art of death”, someone who can study the children’s bodies to determine what happened to them. The King of Sicily sends his best forensic expert, but the “master” is a “mistress” – a woman doctor from the Salerno School of Medicine, one of the few such schools enlightened enough in those days to admit female students.

Adelia is skilled at what she does, but she finds England a primitive, unenlightened place, where women with unusual skills are persecuted as witches. In the interests of her own safety, she and her travelling companion,the Arab Mansur, concoct a plan: he will pretend to be the doctor, and claim to not speak English, so when he allegedly studies the patient she will translate for him, thus requiring her presence at the scene without arousing suspicion.

The author’s descriptions make medieval England come alive, and Henry II, who appears as a character, seems impressively accurate – an arrogant man, clearly accustomed to giving orders and having them obeyed, yet more comfortable hunting than politicking, and for all his flaws he comes across as something of an egalitarian – respecting people skillled in their craft, regardless of race, creed or gender. So it comes to pass that Adelia impresses him with her ability to ‘speak’ to corpses and when she covers the true murderer of the children, Henry decides she must remain in England so that he can call on her again in the future.

I am fond of strong female characters, and although the unenlightened age of medieval England did not exactly encourage independent-minded women, Adelia comes across as a realistic and appealing character, doing her best to find a place in this strange and primitive land where she doesn’t belong.

I have read the first three books in this series. I have been looking forward to reading the fourth, and now sadly final, tale of Adelia’s adventures.


1 comment so far

  1. Nerine Dorman on

    Fantastic! Thank you! I’m adding this to my TBR pile!

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