Saturday, January 15, 2022

Death and the Maiden by Ariana Franklin and Samantha Norman: Reading Room Review

 

When author Ariana Franklin (Diana Norman) passed away in 2011, she had published four books in the Mistress of the Art of Death series. Beginning in 2007 with the stunning Mistress of the Art of Death novel, it was followed by The Serpent’s Tale, Grave Goods, and A Murderous Procession. Fans, including me, of this superbly written series were bereft at the loss of such talent and resigned to lingering storylines being left unresolved. 

This series features Adelia Aguilar, a young woman who, with her man servant Mansur, answers the summons from King Henry II of England for a forensic specialist doctor to come from Salerno, Italy to England and help solve an ongoing string of brutal child murders. Because the stories take place in the High Middle Ages, the latter 1100s, Adelia, as a woman, must keep her skills hidden and the credit given to Mansur. However, Henry II knows just how talented and knowledgeable Adelia is and decides to refuse her return to her native land. There is the character of Sir Rowley, who also serves the King, at first as his tax man and then as a bishop. Rowley becomes involved with Adelia, both personally and professionally, and they form a formidable team all the way around. 

The books have great story, characters, adventure, mystery, and history. The history of this time period, latter 1100s, is fascinating, and Franklin knew how to bring it to life with a brilliance of sufficient detail and precise language. Some of the history interspersed with the stories included Henry II and his Queen, Eleanor, Adelia’s limitations as a woman in Medieval Times, the intricacies of politics and religion ruling everyone, and the methods of both healing and examining the dead. The murder mysteries within all this context were clever and quite dark, but following the line of investigation that Adelia pursued in these dark tales was thrilling. 

So, when the decision was announced that there would be a fifth and final book in the Mistress of Death series written by Samantha Norman, Ariana Franklin’s daughter, there was great excitement. But, fans also recognized that Samantha Norman had big shoes to fill, even with the help of her mother’s notes. Death and the Maiden, the fifth and last book in the series was released in June of 2021, but I have only just read it. I sometimes drag my feet when I know a book is the last one by an author, as if I can make it last longer. I know that there are some mixed reviews on whether Samantha Norman successfully accomplished the task of standing in for her mother and giving us a book to tie up loose ends. I think she has. Oh, there are some quibbles I have, but overall I think that Death and the Maiden gives great satisfaction to the readers of this series.

Oh, those quibbles I mentioned. They mostly involve some questionable character choices. First, the fact that this last book revolves around Adelia’s and Rowley’s now grown daughter Allie. It could have been a disastrous choice to not feature Adelia as the lead here, but somehow it seemed right that the next generation through her daughter was stepping up to show what the future might hold for all of them. The only fault I had with this approach is that Norman kept referring to Adelia and Rowley as if they were old now, or certainly aging characters. Of course, in 1191, the 40s could be considered aging. I just think Norman made a few too many references to these two vital characters feeling their age. Again, the argument could be made that life in the Middle Ages was hard and that people aged faster, and as a result the life expectancy was fairly young compared to today. So, the matter of these choices made by the author may have bothered me a bit, but they did nothing to ruin my enjoyment of the story. In fact, I think that Allie was definitely up to the task as main character.

So, what happens in this last book? King Henry II is dead, Queen Eleanor is in France, and King Richard I is on the throne of England. The previous book, A Murderous Procession, takes place in 1176 when Allie is a child. She is now all grown up and studying under the tutelage of her mother in the art of forensic science and in healing. Adelia and Allie live comfortably near their friend Emma of Wolvercote Manor, and Rowley visits when he can get away from his busy duties as Bishop of Saint Albans. Life is, well, predictable, until a Gyltha’s sister Penda arrives from the Fens (Ely) with news that Gyltha is on her death bed, and if Adelia doesn’t accompany her back to Ely, Gyltha will surely soon die. Unfortunately, Adelia has just broken her ankle and can’t travel. Since Allie has been training under her, Adelia sends Allie with Penda. Adelia will have to wait out her ankle healing to join them in Ely.

Allie arrives in the village of Ely after a grueling four-day ride on horseback at an especially dark time. Not only is Gyltha gravely ill, but there have been teenage girls disappearing from the community and turning up much later in the river, dead. The locals attribute the deaths to accidental drownings, but, like her mother Adelia, Allie has the detective’s nose for sniffing out evil and feels that there’s something off about the disappearances and deaths. However, the first order of business is getting Gyltha well. Well-versed in the healing methods with which Adelia has been successful, Allie proves herself an able stand-in in treating Gyltha, and it’s not long before the beloved old wise woman is on the mend. 

With Gyltha’s recovery comes time for Allie to enjoy her surroundings of the Fens, the place she lived when a young child. She’s happy to be back, yet she can’t shake the feeling that something isn’t right in the peaceful setting. There are distractions from Allie’s concerns though, and the biggest one is Lord Peverill, who seems interested in Allie, which is rather what Rowley and Penda had planned before Penda took her away to the Fens. Penda is also teaching Allie archery skills, which Allie is quite enjoying. And, Allie has made a good friend in Hawise, Gyltha’s granddaughter. In fact, Allie is feeling a sense of independence she’s never felt while she was under her mother’s scrutiny. 

When a friend of Hawise’s goes missing and turns up dead at the river’s edge, Allie has a chance to examine the girl’s body before it’s taken away. What Allie discovers is that the girl was strangled and raped before ending up in the river. Surmising that it must be someone local who has kidnapped and murdered the girls, Allie and others realize how dangerous the situation has become. As Allie waits for Adelia and Rowley to get to the Fens, she is forced to do some digging on her own, as yet another girl disappears. Before this tale is over, the suspense will be as thick as the fog over the fens on an early winter morning. 

Although I am sad to see this series end, I am well pleased with how it ended. It is easy for me to imagine the lives of these favorite characters beyond the pages of Death and the Maiden. I think Samantha Norman deserves high praise for giving readers a final farewell and well written last journey. This series will always be one of my favorites with his setting of England during Henry II’s reign into Richard I’s. For further historical fiction set during these two reigns, check our Sharon Kaye Penman’s five book series beginning with When Christ and His Saints Slept. The Middle Ages have so much drama from which to draw stories and so much world-forming history to connect those stories to. I recommend starting at book one in the Mistress of the Art of Death series so that the history and characters can unfold chronologically. You're in for some great reading.  Enjoy.

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