Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Serpent's Tale

Any regular readers of my blog know that I am a fan of mysteries.  While I choose more literary fiction when my brain can handle it, when I am super busy and stressed with work, home, and life in general a good mystery is like comfort food.  The authors I tend to read write characters and stories that are predictable in the best sense of the word.  Slipping into an Alex Delaware novel or a Myron Bolitar story is like putting on a comfy old pair of jeans.  But sometimes a mystery writer will surprise me, and I have to say that my last read was a pleasant surprise indeed.

I guess the universe must have sensed I was ready for something different, because instead of the usual formula mystery I picked up The Serpent's Tale by Ariana Franklin.  I was intrigued by the premise, and I was right to be.  Ms. Franklin blends modern mystery sensibilities with historical fiction in a new and ingenious way.  Her heroine, Adelia Aguilar, is a doctor of the dead, trained by the illustrious medical school in Salerno-during the 12th century.  It is a time of superstition and blind devotion to Catholicism for most people, but not for the forward thinking Adelia and her Saracen helper, Mansur.  When Henry II's mistress, the Fair Rosamund, is poisoned, she uses her medical knowledge and fierce intelligence to discover who the murderer is-and to avert a civil war between Henry and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Having been interested in Eleanor of Aquitaine for her early feminism since my teens, I've read a fair amount on her life.  It seems that Ms. Franklin is spot on with her historical accuracy.  She deftly describes the contradictions of the time-blind faith in the superiority of Catholicism, coupled with bishops and priests having relations outside their vows of chastity; the plight of the poor against the noblesse oblige of the rich.  It is almost as though Adelia herself is a visitor from our own time to this strange land of our cultural ancestors.  So trapped is she by the assumptions and attitudes people have about both women and science that she must sacrifice the man she loves just to be allowed to continue her calling to medicine-a calling she can only fulfill by pretending to be the assistant of her Muslim friend.  In that time of the Crusades, those ruling England would rather put their trust in an infidel who happened to be male than in a Christian female.  Yet within this rigid social construct she is able to use her scientific mind in ways that mirror many modern forensic techniques-at least the ones that don't require 21st century technology.  There is a lot going on in this novel, but despite the questions and challenges it raises for the reader it is not a difficult read.  As this is actually the second novel in a series, I am going to go back and read the first, Mistress of the Art of Death, as there was some backstory I was obviously missing.  If you haven't read Ariana Franklin before, I suggest you do the same.  But either way, The Serpent's Tale is worth the time.

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