Day 1234: The Siege Winter

Cover for The Siege WinterI am a big fan of anything by Ariana Franklin, so even though I was a little doubtful about The Siege Winter (also known as The Winter Siege) because it is a posthumous novel finished by her daughter, I had high hopes. Unfortunately, it bears almost no resemblance to any other novel by Franklin. Perhaps she wrote the plot synopsis, but I doubt she wrote anything else.

The Siege Winter is purportedly an account of the civil war between King Stephen and Queen Matilda in the 12th century from the point of view of the common people. Gratingly, it is written in modern vernacular and not well written at that. I was alarmed during the prologue, supposedly narrated by a 12th century monk, especially when two sentences began with “Anyway.” It just got worse. I couldn’t take it. I read five pages. Franklin’s prose was beautiful. This is not. I recommend you read one of the other books under “Related Posts.”

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A Murderous Procession

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City of Shadows

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Day 1165: The Winter Isles

In the 12th century, a boy warrior named Somerled in the islands west of what would become Scotland began leading his father’s small band out of obscurity. His father was ineffectual. After a victory, he failed to post guards while his people celebrated, and they were nearly annihilated, driven from their home. Afterwards, the much smaller band moves back to the caves where they first lived when they came from the mainland. But Somerled’s friend Eimhear, nicknamed Otter, is taken away by her father, who returns to the mainland.

The Winter Isles follows the rise of Somerled as he becomes Lord of the Isles. It also follows the love story between Somerled and Eimhear. Much of the novel is devoted to battles, as Somerled takes on one lord after another.

Although the novel covers an interesting period and person, it is only a middling success as a historical novel. It does not have the depth of feeling of the period or character that I expect from a really good historical novel. Characters have a few characteristics rather than distinct personalities, and we are mostly left to imagine the details of ordinary life that make a good historical novel convincing.

It was interesting to read about Somerled, but for a fuller experience of a similar time and a similar character, try King Hereafter by Dorothy Dunnett, the queen of the historical novel.

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King Hereafter

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Day 279: The Serpent’s Tale

Cover for The Serpent's TaleIn the first of the Mistress of the Art of Death series (minor spoilers ahead), Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar, a medieval pathologist, solved a series of murders for the English King Henry II and fell in love with one of his soldiers, Rowley Picot. She declined his marriage proposal because he expected to be rewarded a baronetcy as a result of their success and she knew that as a baronet’s wife she would not be allowed to pursue her medical profession. As a more humble citizen she has a lot more freedom. So, they parted and, to his horror, he was made the Bishop of St. Albans.

In this second book, taking place almost two years later, Rowley fetches her for another mission. She is bubbling over with resentment because she has borne him a daughter, Ally, whom he has not acknowledged.

Rowley is on what he hopes is a preemptive mission. Using poison mushrooms, someone has attempted to murder Rosamund the Fair, Henry II’s mistress, and blame it on his queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine. In an effort to avoid civil war, Rowley wants Adelia to help him figure out who ordered the attempt before Henry hears of it.

But Adelia has bad news for him. The basket of mushrooms he brought to show her contains nightcaps, and Adelia explains that Rosamund may seem to have improved, but she is already dead.

In a frozen winter landscape, Adelia and Rowley travel first to a convent and then to the fantastic Wormwood Tower to investigate the crime, where Rosamund’s body lies protected by a labyrinth and an insane lady’s maid.

Franklin’s series is well written and carefully researched. Although she admits to taking a few liberties with historical characters in this book, for the most part it is historically based on Eleanor’s revolt against Henry in favor of her oldest son.

Franklin sets up a vivid backdrop in the icy English landscape, which plays more than an incidental part in the plot. In addition, she has the ability to make us care about Adelia and Ally, Rowley, Mansur, and Glytha, the main recurring characters. It is with sadness that I heard not long ago of Franklin’s death, and I regret that there are only four books in this series.

Day 240: A Murderous Procession

Cover for A Murderous ProcessionWhen I first started reading Ariana Franklin’s “Mistress of the Art of Death” series, I had mixed feelings about the premise, which is that a 12th century Jewish woman doctor is trapped in England because of her usefulness to Henry II and is in love with a bishop. However, these books are well written and show a great deal of knowledge of the time and place. Ultimately, I find the books interesting and the characters compelling.

Adelia Aguilar is a medieval forensic pathologist trained in Italy who is forced in England to pretend that her Moorish servant Mansur is the doctor and she is his interpreter, since no one would believe a woman could be a trained doctor. In A Murderous Procession, Adelia is living a retired life in the countryside with her daughter when she is ordered to accompany Henry II’s daughter Joanna to her marriage with the King of Sicily. Adelia must leave her own daughter with Queen Eleanor until she returns.

However, Adelia herself is being followed, by a vengeful madman whose bandit lover she killed in a previous book. Unfortunately, I read and reviewed these books out of order. The previous book is Grave Goods, I believe.

Adelia’s lover Rawley is also a member of the party, but he is required to leave periodically on missions of diplomacy. In his absence, the madman incites the entire party, particularly the church men, against Adelia and Mansur, blaming them for the procession’s many mishaps.

Franklin was only able to write a few books in this series before she died. A Murderous Procession is the last. She also wrote the excellent pre-World War II book set in Berlin, City of Shadows, which I reviewed a few months ago. Her death is a sad loss to the fans of good historical fiction.

Day 58: Grave Goods

Cover for Grave GoodsBest Book of Week 12!

In the year 1154 a dying monk sees what he thinks is a vision of the burial of King Arthur after an earthquake at Glastonbury Abbey. He tells his nephew about it as he dies. Twenty years later when King Henry II is putting down a Welsh rebellion, the nephew, a Welsh bard, tells him the story hoping to save his own life. Henry sends a message to Glastonbury, which has just suffered a great fire, and the monks find a coffin buried in the described location that seems to contain the corpses of a man and a woman.

The penurious Henry would love to announce that they had found the bodies of Arthur and Guinever, because the resulting monies from pilgrimages would save him having to pay to rebuild the abbey. But how can he be sure someone won’t come to claim the bones belonging to his Uncle Tom and Aunt Gladys? By summoning his “mistress in the art of death,” Adelia Aguilar, he hopes to determine at least their antiquity.

Grave Goods is a novel in Ariana Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death series. Adelia Aguilar is a graduate of the School of Medicine in Salerno, at the time the only such facility that would accept women, and an expert on the causes of death. She arrived in England on a previous matter, but Henry has found her so valuable that he has never granted her a passport to leave the country. Since she is a woman, her word is not respected by most men, so she pretends she is a translator for her Arab servant Mansur, who pretends to be the doctor.

Henry’s soldiers find Adelia and take her away as she is travelling with her friend Lady Emma Wolvercote to Wells to claim Emma’s son’s property from his grandmother. But when she arrives in Glastonbury after meeting with Henry in Wales, Emma has disappeared. The monks give Adelia’s party an unfriendly greeting, and while she and Mansur are looking in a crypt to find samples to compare with the corpses, someone tries to bury them alive. Something is not right at the abbey, and Adelia is not best pleased to be saved by Rawley, the Bishop of St. Albans, her ex-lover.

I have been reading this series for awhile. At first, I wasn’t sure I bought the premise, but the books are rich with historical details and the forensics information available at the time, and Ariana is a likeable heroine. It’s not her or Rawley’s fault that he was made a bishop (he was a soldier when she met him), and the blending of romance and mystery works fairly well here, which is unusual. The romance is played down in favor of action and suspense. If you like a good historical mystery, you’ll probably enjoy these books.