Thursday, June 25, 2009

Law & Order: 12th Century... A Historical Novel Review

The Serpent's Tale
By Ariana Franklin

This particular cover is pretty photoshoppy. A painting laid over a painting with an embossed title on top of that. Also, the coloring is dark and pretty unattractive. But then, covers are never the most important aspect of a book, anyway.

Summary: Adelia Aguilar, an Italian in xenophobic 12th century England, is King Henry II’s “Mistress of the Art of Death.” In other words, she is an early forensics investigator. Using methods gleaned from studying under a medieval physician and her own experiences, Adelia can figure out when and how the king’s subjects meet their untimely deaths.

In this latest mystery, Adelia is commanded to uncover the true story behind the attempted murder of the king’s mistress, Rosamund, in her tower at Wormhold. Accompanied by a eunuch assistant, Mansur, her dog Ward, her maid Welsh maid Gyltha, and her young child Allie, she sets off for Woodstock.

They are led by Bishop Rowley, who before he became a man of the cloth fathered Allie, and who believes they will arrive only to find Rosamund dead. He’s right. Surrounded by a nearly-impenetrable labyrinth (the “serpent” of the title) and frozen in a high tower, the king’s mistress is dead, but she still holds a secret. Rumors of war, carried over from the civil war between Stephen and Maud, have begun to surface again, this time between King Henry and his queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Eleanor is interested in Rosamund’s possessions, and may have had an interest in Rosamund’s death. Adelia can ascertain that Rosamund was poisoned, but as to whom is the culprit, there is an entire village nearby full of suspects.

In fact, some of the villagers themselves are falling prey to a killer who may or may not be related to Rosamund’s murder. Amidst royal intrigue, scientific inquiry, and state politics, Adelia must further fear for her own safety, and for that of her child. Someone seems to be aware that Adelia is on the case, and that she may know more about murderers than the average 12th century Englishwoman…

My Review:
I absolutely adored the beginning of this novel and could not put it down for the first 150 or so pages. Franklin is entirely convincing in describing the mythical tower of Wormhold and suggests a dark, Gothic twist on the relationship between Rosamund and Henry. I read Alison Weir’s Eleanor of Aquitaine not that long ago, however, so I am entirely disillusioned when it comes to the romance of Rosamund.

Weir disputes pretty thoroughly the existence of any sort of castle near Oxford where Henry could have kept his mistress. In fact, consulting the book now, she says “Rosamund’s death would in time give rise to many legends, none of which have any truth in them” (1). By her account, even by the 14th century there were tales of Eleanor poisoning Rosamund, burning her alive, and other dastardly sordid acts. Eleanor was, of course, already imprisoned at this time and so could not have poisoned Rosamund herself, not to mention that there is no evidence of any labyrinth that could have stood for the infamous one that protected Rosamund.

So, what can I say; I’m a bit jaded toward the subject matter already. But who doesn’t love a little alternate history? I still plowed through the first half of the book fairly quickly, and it was only when I got to Rowley’s disappearance from the novel and a sudden downturn in the action that I could put the book down.

Franklin does a fair job of rendering interesting dialogue that matches the social status of the individual characters. There is a fine line between conveying a low class accent and writing a parodied, incomprehensible dialogue, and Franklin toes it with ease.

Franklin also approaches these historical figures out of legend from multiple angles, which should appeal to a wide audience. Sometimes Henry is immature and almost comical in his ego trips, and sometimes Eleanor seems shrewish and petty (read her scene in Wormhold to see this unpredictable turn of character), but ultimately I think fans will be satisfied with the turn that Franklin gives them. However, you definitely have to read to the very last page to get that satisfaction…

Adelia, our heroine, provides an almost-21st century perspective, probably so that the audience can more easily connect with the medieval mindset. She is comfortable and confident being an outsider in a hostile land, being an unwed mother in a strictly religious society, and various other anachronisms. I understand that Franklin wants to reach a wider audience than only the history snob geek squad, but I think I found it harder vacillating between Adelia’s more “welcome” perspective and the antiquated medieval mindset. It’s hard to sympathize with the medieval characters when you keep getting thrust back into a modern mindset because that happens to be your “eyes and ears.”

Of course, another viewpoint is that the Middle Ages were, in fact, early modernism, and so it might not be entirely impossible that a woman like Adelia could have the opinions and drive that she does. No two people are exactly alike, and anyway I’ve mentioned before how even the most famous historical figures never followed all the rules of their society. So, I hope to hear from more people what they thought about the more “anachronistic” aspects of this novel!

Franklin’s plotting is well-paced, except for that mid-novel break that made it too easy for me to put down, and her resolution is satisfying and believable. There is no deus ex machina here, which was refreshing, and the characterization and ending left me wanting to read the next book in the series.

The side characters are funny and interesting and show immense care on the author’s part to develop a world and mythology for her heroine to live in for a longer series. In fact, Henry and Eleanor are almost “side” characters in this series, although you’re still interested to read more about their exploits. Overall, I was entertained and intrigued by The Serpent’s Tale, and I look forward to reading the next book in the series, Grave Goods, particularly since it involves Arthurian legend.

Some notes I took while reading:

  • While Adelia’s “unmarried mother” status is questionable, the men’s reaction to it as she moves from location to location is hilarious.
  • On p. 34 of my paperback: “Rosamund Clifford?” “That Rosamund.” As if they could be unsure which Rosamund de Clifford the king’s priest had been talking about.
  • Be aware: there is some serious, rampant feminism afoot in this book. Although, the way they’re treated throughout, it’s impossible not to sympathize.
  • Also, there are quite a few graphic descriptions of corpses, murders, fetid medieval folk, and other dastardly sordid acts. It’s not for the weak of stomach, but it's probably pretty educational.
  • There is a villainous confession toward the end where I half-expected the culprit to twirl a mustache or add "And I would have gotten away with it, too, if it wasn't for those meddling kids and their dog." I mean, there are other ways to end a mystery novel. I'll have to read some more of this author's books to see if there is a pattern.

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1. Weir, Alison. Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life. New York: Random House. 1999.


  1. I have not read much of this genre but the few I have I have loved. Good review. Makes me want to put down the thriller I am reading and look for something a bit more like this....

    Happy Blogging!

  2. did you laugh at the part where Glytha was shoving that mercenary around? I think it was the Fleming guard named Cross. That made me laugh.

  3. I did! That was another one of the side characters that I really liked!