Mistress of the Art of Death #1: Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin

Read: 12 June, 2009

Something evil has taken hold of Cambridge. A child’s body has been found mutilated, and now more children have gone missing. When the town finds an easy scapegoat in the local Jewish population, someone sends for a Master of the Art of Death, a sort of Medieval forensic examiner. What they end up getting is Dr. Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar of Salerno, a Mistress of the Art of Death.

Adelia’s character borders on the Mary Sue from time to time and a far too great amount of ink is spilled on her various traits. She is, of course, not classically beautiful, but even this has become a standard Mary Sue designation. On the other hand, the story is interesting – so interesting that I nearly forgot how one-dimensional our main character is.

This is not a mystery in the Holmesian sense. We are not presented with all the facts while the detective works it out and then fingers the culprit. Rather, it follows the more standard line of suspense novels that merely construct themselves around a mystery – a mystery that solves itself when the culprit reveals himself to the detective. And so Adelia discovers where the culprit can be found and so he reveals himself. In my own clearly constructed vision of what a mystery should be, I see this as a failure. However, it does appear to be fairly standard in the genre and, at least, Adelia does use her skills as an examiner to some extent when figuring out where do find the baddy.

One thing I found quite interesting is the view of religion in the novel. Adelia is an Atheist. But somehow, Franklin manages not to make this seem anachronistic. Adelia is an ‘Old Atheist’ – she’s polite about it and she is, still, half-immersed in the religious worldview. Even so, here is a novel that presents Atheism explicitly and in a positive light, without attacking religion or religious authority (a prominent religious figure is Adelia’s good friend and supporter), and without making a big deal of it. It was refreshing to read!

Another aspect that I found very interesting is the resolution of the romantic sub-plot. Adelia does not simply marry her beau, sublimating herself and her career. Rather, she simply decides to indulge in her love and her sexual desires in a way that allows her to preserve her independence. Again, it was refreshing to read, as it isn’t often that women are allowed a happy ending that is not marriage and loss of self.

Overall, Mistress of the Art of Death is an interesting and fast-paced read. While characterization may not be Franklin’s strength, she does manage to distract the reader with and interesting setting, a suspenseful plot, and lots (and lots and lots) of ichy gore.

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