Questions and Topics for Discussion
Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar, heroine of Ariana Franklin’s historical thriller Mistress of the Art of Death, is a woman out of place in her own time. An orphan raised by an atheist Jew in twelfth-century Salerno, Adelia has mastered the “art of death” (what we would today recognize as forensic medicine) in an age when medical practitioners of any sort are viewed as witches and sorcerers, and a woman’s only place is in the home or in the convent. But when the horrific killing of a Christian boy in England casts murderous suspicion on the local Jewish population—threatening their lives and, more important, the tax revenue they generate—the legendary Plantagenet king Henry II implores the King of Sicily to dispatch his best master of this frightful new science to solve the crime. Thus begins Adelia’s pursuit of Rakshasa, the devilish serial killer who has left a grotesque trail of dead children stretching from the Crusade-torn Middle East to the bustling medieval port town of Cambridge—where the death count has soon reached four and anti-Semitic sentiment is nearing a boiling point.
Mistress of the Art of Death employs the narrative devices of a modern thriller to explore the world of medieval Europe, weaving historical figures and events into the plot to provide a view of the twelfth century that is often at odds with the conventional label of “Dark Ages.” While Adelia’s education, self-sufficiency, and scientific rationalism are anathema to the medieval Catholic Church’s superstitious dogma and misogynistic social hierarchy, she is not alone in her surprisingly modern mind-set. Her home city of Salerno is a bastion of scientific inquiry, where Jew, Catholic, and Muslim live as equals; Henry II, though self-serving and ruthless, promotes religious tolerance and sets the foundation for today’s Western system of justice; and even the holy city of Jerusalem, before the ravages of the Crusades, finds people of every faith living in relative harmony.
Set against this rich background is the story itself, a serial-killer mystery propelled by a sociopath every bit as gruesome and frightening as the fictional (and real) killers of today. Rakshasa’s crimes are shocking enough in and of themselves, but when committed in the context of the era’s pervasive superstition they take on demonic qualities that the people of Cambridge view as all too real. These same superstitions make Adelia’s challenge as an investigator nearly insurmountable: the examining of dead bodies is a desecration, scientific inquiry is the work of the devil, and the implication of religious figures in the crime is blasphemy. Adding to these obstacles is Adelia’s status as a mere woman—and one of dubious honor—who travels with two despised heathens, a Jew and a Muslim. Soon one of these companions, Simon of Naples, is dead, and this loss, added to her unexpected attachment to the people she meets in Cambridge, transforms Adelia’s mission from one of duty into one of desperate need. Ultimately, her unconventional manner and methods bring Adelia to the attention of both Henry II and an unlikely suitor—and land her directly in the pit of the beast himself, the depraved former Crusader now known as Rakshasa.
ABOUT ARIANA FRANKLIN
Ariana Franklin, author of City of Shadows
, is the pen name of British writer Diana Norman. A former journalist, Norman has written several critically acclaimed biographies and historical novels. She lives in Hertfordshire, England, with her husband, the film critic Barry Norman.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS:Although the majority of Mistress of the Art of Death is written in the third person, the novel opens and closes in a kind of collective first-person voice, describing what “we” have seen and heard. Whom or what do you think this voice is supposed to represent? Is it the voice of the reader, the author, history itself—or something else entirely?
Adelia encounters many people who are, as she describes to Brother Gilbert, “hateful”—Roger of Acton, Prioress Joan, Sir Gervase—while the two who are ultimately revealed as the killers come across as genteel, even virtuous. Does this dichotomy hold any symbolic meaning?
Adelia falls in love with Rowley Picot but rejects his proposal because she fears it would mean the end of her work. Do you think she made the right decision? Given that Picot “wanted her as she was,” could they have created an arrangement that would have allowed them to marry while still giving Adelia her freedom?
In describing Jerusalem, Picot reflects, “That’s what you don’t expect—how tangled it all is….You think…God bless, that fellow kneeling to a cross, he’s a Christian, he must be on our side—and he is a Christian, but he isn’t necessarily on your side, he’s just as likely to be in an alliance with a Moslem prince.” In what ways does the “tangled” Middle East of the twelfth century seem similar to the troubled region of today? In what ways is it different? Does this depiction of Jerusalem a thousand years ago shed any light on the predicament there now?
Ariana Franklin has said that she intended her depiction of Henry II to serve as a kind of rebuttal to the harsh judgment history has made of him. How did you react to Henry as a character? Is he likable? Did he come across as truly progressive, or merely expedient? If you were familiar with him before reading this book, has your opinion of him changed?
Some of the superstitions presented in the book—such as the idea of medicine as “witchcraft”—seem ludicrous by today’s standards. Imagine today’s society as viewed from a vantage point of a thousand years in the future: What commonly held beliefs do you think would seem ridiculous? Whom can you picture as modern-day Adelias—people whose ideas are seen today as incorrect, even outrageous, but who will be looked back at as ahead of their time?
Adelia is horrified by the fate of Sister Veronica, and goes so far as to petition King Henry to have her released. Do you think her punishment was just? If not, what do you believe would have been the appropriate punishment for her crimes?
Despite his position as King of England, Henry is unable to intervene in the cases of Roger of Acton and Sister Veronica because his power is subject to the approval of the Catholic Church. Do you see any benefit, in the larger scheme, to this arrangement? Does it provide a necessary check to Henry’s powers, or does it hold the greater good hostage?