I’m not going to lie; I really enjoy historical fiction, provided it is well-written. Bonus points for an authentically antiquated setting, and careful treatment of racism, sexism and cultural clashes. I completely respect the amount of research that goes into describing the people of another time and place and the lives they may have led.
Ariana Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death (2007) is a work of historical fiction as well as a first class murder mystery, but not in the popular sense, with a grumpy and/or vengeful (possibly alcoholic) detective directing the action. Franklin’s investigator is a trained doctor imported to England from Sicily in 1171 after four children are gruesomely murdered in Cambridge.
King Henry has asked for a master of the art of death, a doctor who can ‘speak’ to the dead and find out who killed them. Mysterious as this all sounds, what the doctor in question really does is reason out the likely cause of death from the physical indications of violence, and try to puzzle together the pieces to find the killer. The doctor’s task is made much more difficult, however, when she is a woman and must disguise her abilities and quest to avoid being labeled a witch.
Franklin doesn’t shy away from shocking violence and perversion; this story is not meant for those who enjoy historical fiction merely to imagine themselves in another time and place, perhaps the object of devotion of some member of the aristocracy. Mistress of the Art of Death is fast-paced, gritty , and mesmerizing. And luckily for those of us who enjoy quality period fiction, the sequel to Mistress, The Serpent’s Tale (2008) is available, as well as the third in what has rapidly become a series, Grave Goods, released in March 2009.