Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
High in the upper chamber of Wormhold Towera monolithic structure located in
the countryside of medieval Oxfordshirea woman lies dying. Having exhausted her
prayers to God, the attending nun, Sister Havis of nearby Godstow Abbey, calls
for a priest to administer last rites. The dying woman's pathologically devoted
servant, Dame Dakers, appeals to a different power to save her master's life,
performing a ritual sacrifice to the Devil. But neither God nor the Devil can
rescue the woman from an agonizing death, or shield England from the political
firestorm that is sure to follow. For the woman writhing in her deathbed is
Rosamund Clifford, famed mistress of King Henry II, and her death is no
accident. And with Henry's rebellious wife Eleanor freshly escaped from
imprisonment, there seems little doubt of the culpritand little hope of
averting a civil war that will tear England to shreds.
Ariana Franklin's The Serpent's Tale features the return of Adelia
Aguilar, hero of Mistress of the Art of Death. Thanks to her training at
the forward-thinking School of Medicine in her native Salerno, Adelia is an
alien in medieval England: a skilled forensic investigator in an age of
ignorance and superstition, an educated and fiercely independent woman in a
culture that considers women little more than property. She is now also the
mother of an infant daughter, conceived during her brief but intense love affair
with Rowley Picot, the newly appointed bishop of St. Albans. Barred from
returning to her native Italy by King Henry himself who sees her as a valuable,
if largely neglected, resourceAdelia has come to feel at home among the fen
people of Cambridgeshire. She has also convinced herself that her feelings for
Picot have been extinguished, a self-deception that is quickly exposed when the
bishop summons her to Cambridge. Adelia initially refuses to answer the call of
the man who fathered her child and then retreated into a life of sanctity and
celibacy. But Picot's need for her is dire. Only Adelia has the knowledge and
skills to prove Eleanor innocent of Rosamund's murder, and only Eleanor's
exoneration will prevent Henry from unleashing a torrent of military retribution
against her and her nascent army.
The Serpent's Tale broadens the canvas from Adelia's previous adventure,
moving the action west to Oxfordshire and interweaving her story with the
legendary tale of Henry Plantagenet and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Adelia's
investigation pits her against obstacles both manmade and natural, including the
serpentine labyrinth surrounding Wormhold Tower and the harrowing snowstorm that
smothers the countryside after she is captured by Eleanor. Forced to take
shelter at Godstow Abbey, Adelia finds herself short on allies and surrounded by
threats: the violently bickering factions of Eleanor's mercenary army, the
superstitious townspeople who suspect her as a witch, and an assassin who is
systematically murdering anyone who might identify him. Desperate to protect her
child but also determined to provide justice for the dead, Adelia once again
finds herself face-to-face with a killerand dangerously close to becoming his
In what ways has the character of Adelia changed since the events of
Mistress of the Art of Death? How do her experiences in the earlier
novel inform her actions in The Serpent's Tale?
Were you familiar with the legend of Henry and Eleanor before reading
this book? How does Ms. Franklin's portrayal of them compare to others you
have read or seen? Did you learn anything about them that surprised you?
Sister Havis remarks that the icehouse at Godstow Abbey was built "long
before [the abbey's] foundation," quite possibly by the Romans. How do
details such as these enrich the storytelling? What other details does the
author employ to create a sense of time, place, and history in the novel?
Some people's names in the novel are pointedly descriptive, such as the
ill-humored mercenary named Cross. What other character names seem
intentionally selected in this way? How does this technique assist or
enhance the storytelling?
Much as a modern woman might, Adelia rejects many of the commonly held
beliefs of medieval England, such as the inferiority of women and the
existence of witchcraft. Are there also ways in which Adelia's thinking
seems a product of its time? How do you think she would fare in the modern
In explaining his pious attitude towards his vows, Picot tells Adelia
that a bishop is " a keeper of other people's souls. His own, yours Adelia,
it matters. I thought it would not, but it does." Do you think Adelia is
obligated to respect his beliefs? Would you consider it "immoral" if she
tried to change his mind?
Mother Edyve sees the rise of "courtly love" what we would today
understand as romance as a step towards raising the status of women. Adelia
sees it as "a pleasant hypocrisy Love, honor, respect. When are they ever
extended to everyday women?" From today's perspective, whose view do you
think has proven more accurate?
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Berkley Books.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.
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