15 September 2011

Thursday Tea: Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin

The Book: I recently listened to the first book in what promises to be a terrific series. Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin is definitely a murder mystery but it's also historical fiction. The setting is 12th-century Cambridge, England, at a time when Henry II is firmly in charge.

After several Christian children are found brutally murdered, rumors and accusations spread throughout the area, with the local Jews bearing the brunt of the blame. Although Jews have been expelled from several European kingdoms, Henry II depends on the taxes they pay him and thus he's forced to protect them.

Realizing that only solid proof of a non-Jewish killer will restore peace to Cambridge and money to his treasury, Henry asks the king of Sicily to send a doctor specializing in the art of death (a forensic expert). What Henry got was an unlikely trio consisting of Simon of Naples, a Jew known for his diplomatic skills; Adelia Aguilar, an atheist with both forensic and medical training; and Mansur, an Arab, who is Adelia's protector.

What was the king of Sicily thinking to send this team? Cambridge is not liberal Sicily, and the local English population has no love for Jews, Arabs, or educated women. The three find themselves caught between Church and Crown, Jews and Catholics, and good and evil as they work to find the murderer.

Franklin's mix of historical fiction with suspenseful mystery makes Mistress of the Art of Death appealing on a couple of levels. First, I enjoyed seeing medieval Cambridge and its diverse population from the perspective of the three travelers. At the same time, I was caught up in the investigation of the murders. Although I started to have an idea of where mystery was going, I was not prepared for the ultimate solution.

Although I can't attest to the historical accuracy of every detail, the foundation of the novel is based in fact. For example, it's true that Henry II did not expel the Jews from his kingdom and even offered them some protection. It is also true that there was a medical school in Salerno in the 12th century that trained women.

I listened to the unabridged audio edition of Mistress of the Art of Death (Penguin Audiobooks, 13 hr, 12 min) read by Rosalyn Landor. I've listened to a couple of books narrated by Landor, and her expressive reading is always spot on. For this novel, Landor's vocalizations intensified the action scenes and kept me fully engaged during the descriptive passages. Highly recommended.

Mistress of the Art of Death will appeal to fans of the Brother Cadfael books by Ellis Peters and the Magdalene la Batarde books by Roberta Gellis. The novel won two awards: a Historical Dagger award and a Macavity Award for Best Historical Novel. Penguin USA has posted a thoughtful reading guide on their website, a bit uncommon for a murder mystery. The book's website contains historical information and a time line.

The Tea: Tea has been just the thing to get me though the rainy, dreary afternoons we've had lately. This week I tried the Adagio's Ceylon Sonata tea. Nothing too fancy here, just a good basic tea for an afternoon pick-me-up. Here's what the company says: "Fresh, citrusy aroma, sweet juicy notes like mandarin peel or grapefruit, refreshing texture and balanced astringency." Yep, I'm still drinking it black and unsweetened, but that's the way I like it.

The Assessment: Could Adelia have had tea? As far as I can tell (and I really didn't spend much time looking), the chances are slim that she came in contact with an Asian trader who brewed tea for her in Sicily. On the other hand, there were probably established trade routes to Egypt, which had ancient ties with India, so maybe she had tea. In any case, once in England, I'm pretty sure the drink of choice was some kind of ale or maybe wine.

What About You? What are you drinking this week--tea, ale, soda, coffee or something else? And be sure to let me know what you're reading or listening to.

Thursday Tea was the brainchild of Anastasia at Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog. The wonderful Sarah McCoy often posts a Thursday Tea post too.

Published by Penguin USA / Berkley, 2007
ISBN-13: 9780425219256
Source: Bought (see review policy).
Rating: B

Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)
FTC: I buy all teas myself, I am not a tea reviewer.


Julie P. 9/15/11, 7:52 AM  

I think I have this book! Sounds like I'd love it!

Marg 9/15/11, 8:19 AM  

I really enjoyed the early books in this series, and was very moved when I heard that Ariana Franklin/Diana Norman passed away. I also liked the books that I had read that were published under the Diana Norman name but there are quite a few hard to find ones that I need to track down.

Rhiannon 9/15/11, 8:55 AM  

I too loved this series, so disappointed to hear she's passed away!

Zibilee 9/15/11, 9:27 AM  

I also read this book and loved it, and went immediately to the second book, which I didn't like as much. I actually never finished it because it just wasn't as compelling to me and I got bored. I have heard that others have liked it, so it might just be me.

I have been sticking to the chocolate hazelnut tea with a little cream. I have a bunch of other teas, but that is the favorite of the moment.

Jenn's Bookshelves 9/15/11, 9:57 AM  

I adore this series! I think I'll do a re-read, or a re-listen, based on your comments re: the audio production!

bermudaonion 9/15/11, 11:10 AM  

I don't read a lot of historical fiction, but with the suspense element added, this appeals to me.

Anonymous,  9/15/11, 1:18 PM  

I liked that The Mistress of the Art of Death was different. I didn't think it was the best written book but the story was good and at some point I hope to read the other books in the series.

Audra 9/15/11, 1:56 PM  

I love this review format and this review -- I've long been interested in this book but now you've got me hot to find it -- it sounds marvelous. I spent three years living in Sicily so I'm quite fond of the country so that's an added attraction!

Heather 9/15/11, 8:48 PM  

I've been meaning to read this for years! I think I'll try the audio. I trust your judgement on audiobooks, you haven't been wrong yet!

Kailana 9/15/11, 9:48 PM  

I really enjoyed this series! The first book was probably the best, though.

Barbara 9/16/11, 11:31 AM  

I already have this book on my TBR list but your wonderful review just peaked my interest again.

I have a sore throat and a cold coming on so I'm drinking my usual plain old Lipton with a bit of soothing honey.

Leslie (Under My Apple Tree) 9/16/11, 2:28 PM  

The audio version sounds like a good choice for me. I hadn't heard of this book yet.

I'm drinking Yogi Ginger Tea. It wouldn't go with the book, I'd have to bring out my old standby, English Breakfast, for this one.

Dorte H 9/16/11, 3:51 PM  

Cambridge? I must think about that even though it goes a bit too far back for my taste.

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks 9/17/11, 10:11 AM  

I'm glad you're enjoying this audio. You know I'm such a wimp that the cover might scare me away -- glad your review tones it down for me :)

Michelle 9/24/11, 8:31 AM  

This sounds like a really heavy book! I'm glad you're enjoying it.

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