(I read this book as part of the Pay it Sideways Challenge. Join in anytime, we’d love to have you!)
It’s 1171 in Cambridge, England, and someone is killing children. An enraged Catholic population points to the Jews, those “child eaters,” and it is only through the patronage of King Henry II that most of them find sanctuary.
The Jews’ situation puts the king in a bind; they’re essentially imprisoned, unable to do their job of moneylending…and unable to pay the substantial taxes Henry receives from them. The crimes must be solved and the Jews exonerated, or the throne of England may once again come under contestation.
So Henry sends a messenger to the renowned Medical School of Salerno, from whence he has heard that “masters of the art of death” come; these masters study the dead to determine the cause and killer, and Henry requires the best of these doctors.
Little does he know, however, that the best physician of the dead is not a master, but a mistress.
My goodness, what a ride! Mistress of the Art of Death is part mystery, part forensics, part religion, and all kinds of awesome.
The story opens on the road to Cambridge, where our story’s players are gathered. There’s the prioress, a gaggle of return Crusaders, a prior with some sort of medical condition, a tax collector, and the other usual suspects. Included in this group is our main character, Adelia, and her escorts. And there’s also the child killer.
1171 is not a great time for women; less so for women who are doctors; and even less so for women who investigate and autopsy the dead. Adelia is used to adversity, and her no-nonsense and methodical approach to every aspect of her life and current situation makes her a fantastic character. Who wouldn’t love a woman like this:
This was the third person she’d stopped with a request for directions and the third to inquire why she wanted it. ‘I’m considering opening a bawdy house’ was an answer that came to mind, but she’d already learned that Cambridge inquisitiveness needed no tweaking; she merely said, ‘I should like to know where it is.’
Other favorites include Sir Rowley Picot—despite the mounting evidence against him—and Prior Geoffrey, a man who never lets his holy vows get in the way of a little blasphemy.
The plot is perfect, the twists unexpected, and the writing impeccable. It’s gruesome at times, but never overly so. If you have any soul at all you’ll fall head over heels for Adelia, and be extremely glad to know that there are three more books in the Mistress of the Art of Death series. Fantastic stuff!
About the recommender
Desktop Retreat is the home of Trish, a woman whose book reviews are short, sweet, and snappy. She also frequently posts quotes from authors and novels, as well as beautiful bookish art pieces.
Trish reads a lot of classics, and reading her posts gives my crazy historical fiction/YA/fantasy world a little grounding and balance. Like me, she loves Mistress of the Art of Death for its great characters, including Adelia, “a feminist before her time.” Check out her review here.