Monday, June 09, 2008

The Serpent's Tale by Ariana Franklin

Adelia Aguilar, Mistress of the Arts of Death, graduate of the great university of Salerna, is what we today would call a Medical Examiner or an anatomist. Brought to England at the request of King Henry II to find out who was killing children, at the end of the case, Henry refused to let her return home, keeping her in the country should he have need of her again.

Adelia settled in the fen lands, and her lover, Rowley Picot, fathered a baby on her. But before he even knew she was pregnant, he proposed to her, only to be turned down by Adelia when she realized he expected her to give up her profession and become merely his lady, running his estate. Rowley was upset, and instead took a job as a bishop, Bishop of Saint Albans.

Now she is approached again by her friend, the Prior Geoffrey, who tells her that the King has assigned her to look into the death of his mistress Rosamund Clifford, also known as the Rosa Mundi, the Rose of the World. Rosamund has been living in a tower surrounded by a hedge maze, supposedly impenetrable to any but those who know the secret of the way in, and now she lies poisoned, done in by a batch of mushrooms brought to her by an old woman, who claimed the mushrooms were a present for her.

People who learn of the death are already blaming the Queen, Eleanor, but those who actually know her say that if she were to kill Rosamund, she would have done it by strangling the woman, not poison. Poison, though traditionally a woman's weapon, is not the way Eleanor approaches the world.

The King has not only sent Adelia on this task, but also her former lover, and now the King's fixer as well as Bishop, Rowley Picot. Adelia feels angry at her former lover, who has not sent her word, nor asked about his own daughter. Though it is winter, and one of the coldest winters on record at that, the chill between Adelia and Rowley is even deeper on her side, enlivened with occasional hot outbursts.

On their way to Oxford, the party discovers the body of a murdered man on the bridge over the river. He has been killed with a single crossbow bolt to the heart, by two men who lay in wait for him, and his horse has been hamstrung. As the bridge belongs to the sisters of the nunnery where they will be staying, the travelers take the horse off to be humanely killed, and take the body with them to the nunnery, where it is stored in the ice house until it can be identified and the killers discovered.

The next day, they go down the river and to the site where Rosamund lived, and discover that the tower resembles a penis, and the hedge maze, a woman's privates. The soldiers accompanying them find this hilarious, but Adelia feels for the woman who had to live in the tower, subjected to ridicule even by the place she lived in!

They manage to thread the maze and discover the body, frozen in an upright position at the writing desk in the upper room. Adelia stays to see what evidence the body can tell her, while the men go back downstairs. Then Eleanor arrives, and Adelia finds that Rosamund's servant, Dakers, has been hiding in the garderobe when she charges out and tries to kill the Queen. Adelia saves her, sustaining a wound in the process, and Eleanor mocks the dead body of Rosamund, then announces her intention of staying until the body starts to decay.

Eleanor and Adelia stay in the room, together, and the fire is built up to warm the body enough so that it will start to stink. During this time, Adelia discovers a chest full of letters that mimic the letters Rosamund Clifford wrote to Eleanor. In fact, Rosamund merely copied the letters. But the hand looks familliar, and Adelia takes one and hides it to have a sample of the writing.

When the body finally starts to rot, Eleanor leaves the tower, and her men build a fire in the base of the tower to burn it to the ground, but it fails to catch. Eleanor and her party take Adelia, Rowley and the rest and plan to return to Oxford, where rebels loyal to her cause and the cause of her son have gathered, under the mantle of Lord Wolvercote. Rowley manages to escape during the journey, and goes to warn King Henry, while Adelia and the others return to the Nunnery, where they stay to avoid the cold, blizzard-like conditions.

Adelia worries for Rowley, afraid he will die in the biting cold and brisk wind, and for her daughter, when she realizes that Rosamund Clifford's killer is still around and is trapped in the Nunnery with her. A threat to her daughter causes her to back off momentarily before she remembers her duty and begins to investigate in earnest. But can she save herself when the killer knows who she is, and wants to stop her endless questions?

This is an unusual series. Adelia is a hard character to like, being hard, cold and she doesn't show emotions very often, except in the case of her daughter and her former lover, Rowley. Adelia is a doctor, but is hampered by the fact that very few women back at that time were doctors, so her Arab servant, Mansur, has to pretend to be an Arab Doctor, and she, his assistant. Since they both speak Arabic, this isn't usually a problem, and when Mansur's hands are injured, she takes over, pretending to be acting on his orders.

What makes Adelia fascinating is her attention to detail and ability to shut out everything else when looking at the scene of a crime, and her analytical mind, which is fairly unusual for a woman at the time. Women were considered the weaker sex, including mentally, and she is mistreated by men several times who think she is a mere, weak-brained woman who will be unable to out-think them, then find out they are horribly wrong, to their own displeasure.

The writing style in this book is easy to get into and is much like Adelia herself, spare and analytical. I liked this book, and I think you might, too.

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