BookBrowse Reviews The Serpent's Tale by Ariana Franklin

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The Serpent's Tale

by Ariana Franklin

The Serpent's Tale by Ariana Franklin X
The Serpent's Tale by Ariana Franklin
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2008, 384 pages

    Paperback:
    Feb 2009, 416 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kathy Pierson
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Combines the best of modern forensic thrillers with the drama of historical fiction in the enthralling second novel in the Mistress of the Art of Death series

The Serpent's Tale takes readers to the upper Thames Valley, near Wallingford, in 12th century England. In a novel filled with unexpected twists, one ongoing surprise is the medieval protagonist herself -- a skilled and secretly practicing forensic pathologist! Dr. Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar was educated not in England, then shackled by religious and superstitious restrictions against women, but at the "forward-thinking, internationally admired School of Medicine in Salerno*, which defied the Church by enrolling women into its studies."

The fictional Adelia is probably the only anatomist in England at this time – male or female – and the King uses her unique abilities to solve a string of criminal and medical mysteries. Any book containing autopsies and gruesome deaths is not for the squeamish, but Adelia's blunt personality and investigative skills make this an entertaining tale. The story unfolds with humor and complexity, and contains plenty of suspicious suspects and unsuspected reversals. Since the ignorance and prejudice of these times risked intelligent women being branded as witches, Adelia cannot expose herself as the competent coroner that she is. For her own safety, she must practice as a doctor only in secrecy. Publicly, she poses as an assistant to her eunuch manservant, Mansur, and lets him take the credit as she deduces the truth behind the murders.

As a sequel to Franklin's Mistress of the Art of Death (2007), a continuing thread winding through this book concerns Adelia's relationship with her baby daughter and her tempestuous love for the baby's father, Rowley Picot. Because she rejects the feminine submission required for marriage, Adelia refused Rowley's offer to wed in the first book of this series. Rowley has since been appointed Bishop of St. Albans and is now bound by a vow of abstinence, which complicates things immensely!

The events of this novel involve historical personages including Henry Plantagenet, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry's mistress Rosamund Clifford, and others. The character of Adelia is independent, courageous, and mentally forceful, and at times her insertion into this tapestry of the Middle Ages can seem a bit of a stretch. Franklin's sentence fragments and structural flow can also be difficult to follow, and the writing tone doesn't always align with the 12th-century setting of the novel. However, these things being said, The Serpent's Tale is a fun and engaging fiction set in an interesting and tumultuous period of English history that has received much less literary attention than the overdone Tudor period. Visiting this unfamiliar era, and then following research trails afterward, rewarded me with many new facts and background histories. This book should appeal to those who enjoy strong female characters, medically-based crime solving, or British mysteries and intrigues.


*The University of Salerno, Italy is considered by some to be the first European university. Its School of Medicine reached its heights between the 10th and 13th centuries. Talking of medical matters, Franklin acknowledges in her author's note that in the Middle Ages, the title of doctor was bestowed on followers of philosophy, not physicians, but she has chosen to apply the modern sense in this series, so as to simplify meaning for readers and herself.

About the Author
Ariana Franklin is the pen name of British writer Diana Norman, a former journalist, who has written several critically acclaimed biographies and historical novels under her own name and as Ariana Franklin. She is married to well known British film critic, Barry Norman (more).


Publishing in March 2009
Grave Goods, which opens with Adelia traveling to the holy town of Glastonbury to inspect bones rumored to belong to Arthur and Guinevere.

Reviewed by Kathy Pierson

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in February 2008, and has been updated for the February 2009 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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