On Monday, May 4, at 7 pm, on BookPeople’s third floor, the 7% Solution Book Club discusses Ariana Franklin’s first Adelia Aguilar novel, Mistress of The Art of Death. All book clubs are free and open to the public, and book club picks are 10% off at the registers the month of discussion.
– Post by Molly
As Mistress of the Art of Death begins, a child is murdered in the sleepy hamlet of 12th century Cambridge. The child’s severe injuries lead to a rumor of crucifixion, which leads to a blood libel accusation against Cambridge’s small and beleaguered Jewish community. The Jewish population flees to the castle, the Christian population waits outside, and the lord of the manor sends a missive to King Henry II: if the true murderer is not found quickly, the Jews of Cambridge will face expulsion or death, and the King will lose much of his hefty tax revenue.
A motley trio heads to England from Sicily to find the child-murderer and clear the rumors of ritual sacrifice – Simon, the King of Sicily’s Jewish fixer, Adelia, a doctor of Salerno who is well versed in the art of reading corpses, and Mansur, a Moorish eunuch proficient in both swearing and fighting.
The novel is Ariana Franklin’s first to chronicle the adventures of Adelia Aguilar, female forensics scientist extraordinaire. Adelia is a graduate of the medical academy of Salerno in Sicily, fluent in several languages, including Hebrew, Arabic, Latin, and English, and she is, quite possibly, the most cosmopolitan and capable woman to ever set foot in Medieval England, fictional or real. She also has strong allies and a stronger backbone, both increasingly necessary to her preservation as the novel continues.
Mistress of The Art of Death combines many of my favorite things – forensics and feminism; murder and the Middle Ages. Ariana Franklin, in her afterward, admits a certain amount of deliberate anachronisms, in order to create more relatable protagonists. Franklin’s context for her characters’ actions, her grounding of their experience in appropriate physical locales, and her descriptions of earthy humor and punished medieval bodies are all spot-on for the era explored by the novel.
Ariana, Mansur, and Simon all display much more freedom of thought and expression than was available to the average medieval subject, whether peasant, lord, or clergy. In contrast, the host of characters they encounter along their peregrinations and through their search for a murderer represent a diverse array of prejudice, ignorance, and censorship that fit right in with the times.
Franklin’s characters, in their narrow-minded behaviors and cosmopolitan impulses, also represent one of the biggest contradictions of the Crusades. At the same time that crusaders swept across Europe, killing any Jews, Muslims or “heretics” they could find even before reaching the Holy Land, these same crusaders were drastically expanding their worldview through their encounters with diverse cultures and their war-driven need to adapt to circumstances, and thus to other customs.
Franklin’s portrayal of the Middle Ages shows a dynamic society, adapting and evolving to new circumstances; a society engaged in an endless struggle between doctrine and common sense, power and charity, local allegiances and international curiosity. While Franklin’s characters may frequently express attitudes incomprehensible to the Medieval studies novice, they experience enough upheaval, trauma, and of course, murder to fit nicely into today’s bloody headlines. In short, Franklin, in Mistress of the Art of Death, has written a great Medieval murder mystery.
Copies of Mistress of The Art of Death are available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. The 7% Solution Book Club meets the first Monday of each month. As always, books for book clubs are 10% off when purchased the month of discussion.