Thursday, May 08, 2008

The Serpent's Tale

Our book today is The Serpent's Tale by Ariana Franklin, her follow-up to 2006's Mistress of the Arts of Death, one of the best historical novels we here at Stevereads have read in many, many years. You'd think that fact would have made us eager to read The Serpent's Tale, but truth be told, it initially had the opposite effect.

Our esteemed colleague the Empress put it best: when a book grabs you the way Mistress of the Arts of Death does, you dread the follow-up because you're worried it won't - worried not only about a limp reading experience in the sequel, but worried that it'll lower your opinion of the original, which will now seem like a random fluke, unworthy of all the admiration you thought it deserved.

Fortunately, such doubts are dispelled about five minutes into reading The Serpent's Tale. It's every bit as perfectly plotted, every bit as beautifully written, and every bit as refreshingly intelligent as its predecessor. It's a marvel, and one we can't recommend strongly enough.

The scene is medieval England under the mostly-benevolent rule of Henry II, and the story features the return of one of the greatest detective-story protagonists of them all, Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar, our Mistress Adelia, who was trained at the School of Medicine at Salerno and so has little patience for the primitive witch-doctoring that passes for medical science in the rest of the West. She has little patience for that world's treatment of women, either, but to forestall accusations of witchcraft (or simple, sexist assault) while in England, she must pretend to be the assistant to her bodyguard Mansur, who must pose as the actual doctor in the duo.

(Setting her story in an age of such brutal and universal misogyny might have prompted Franklin to get up on her soap box about women's rights, but she's too smart for that. Mistress Adelia is all the more perfect a focal point for thinking about such issues specifically because she's so humanly less than perfect, and that in itself is quite a feat: Franklin has created a character the reader must get to know, and the process is infinitely rewarding)

Mistress Adelia, accompanied by her steadfast friend Gyltha, by Ward, her malodorous dog, by Mansur, and by her infant daughter Allie, is called upon by Henry to probe into the death of Rosamund Clifford, Henry's mistress. Almost immediately, this mission brings Adelia and her friends into contact with Rowley Picot, little Allie's father, now made a bishop by his friend and patron Henry, and this increases the tension: Rowley would have stayed with Adelia, but she insisted that he leave her to serve his king, and he let himself be convinced. It's a sign of Adelia's wonderfully believable complexity that she's both grateful that Rowley is helping a mostly-worthy king and resentful that he would leave her, even at her own insistence.

The scene where now-Bishop Rowley first lays eyes on his tiny daughter shows with rapid-fire ease a great many of the writerly things Franklin does perfectly:

There was a sudden shout from the bedroom. "It's here? She's brought it here?" Now down to his tunic, a man who looked younger and thinner but still very large stood in the doorway, staring around him. He loped to the basket on the table. "My God," he said. "My God."

You dare, Adelia thought. You dare ask whose it is.

But the bishop was staring downward with the awe of Pharaoh's daughter glimpsing baby Moses in the reeds. "Is this him? My God, he looks just like me."

"She," Gyltha said. "She looks just like you."

How typical of church gossips, Adelia thought viciously, that they would be quick to tell him she'd had his baby without mentioning its sex.

"A daughter." Rowley scooped up the child and held her high. The baby blinked with sleep and then crowed with him. "Any fool can have a son," he said. "It takes a man to conceive a daughter."

That's why I loved him.

Who's her daddy's little moppet, then," he was saying, "who's got eyes like cornflowers, so she has - yes, she has - just like her daddy's. And teeny-weeny toes. Yumm, yumm, yumm. Does she like that? Yes she does."

Adelia was helplessly aware of Father Paton regarding the scene. She wanted to tell Rowley he was giving himself away; this delight was not episcopal. But presumably a secretary was privy to all his master's secrets - and it was too late now, anyway.

The bishop looked up. "Is she going to be bald? Or will this fuzz on her head grow? What's her name?"

"Allie," Gyltha said.


"Almeisan." Adelia spoke for the first time, reluctantly. "Mansur named her. Almeisan is a star."

Naturally, as the king's man, Rowley wants the question of who killed Rosamund cleared up as soon as possible. And as an Englishman - one of countless whose lives were torn apart by the civil war fought between King Stephen and the Empress Maud - he'd like a solution that doesn't plunge the country into civil war again. But such a solution at first seems unlikely in the extreme, since the prime suspect is none other than Henry's estranged wife, Eleanor of Acquitaine.

Franklin's chosen a perfect backdrop against which to set her independent-minded female doctor; English history would have to wait five more centuries before its affairs would be so deeply marked by the destinies of great women; Empress Maud, Rosamund Clifford, Eleanor of Acquitaine .. Adelia belongs in such company, and Franklin expertly extends this awareness everywhere, including her description of the nuns who tend to Godstow Abbey, where pivotal pieces of the action unfold:

If asked, its twenty-four nuns and their female pensioners would have insisted that it was the Lord God who had called them to abandon the world, but their air of contentment suggested that the Lord's wish had coincided exactly with their own. Some were widows with money who'd heard God's call at their husbands' graveside and hurried to answer it at Godstow before they could be married off again. Some were maidens who, glimpsing the husbands selected for them, had been overwhelmed by a sudden vocation for chastity and had taken their dowries with them into the convent instead. Here they could administer a sizable, growing fiefdom efficiently and with a liberal hand - and they could do it without male interference.

The Serpent's Tale is an utterly engrossing book, the kind of novel-reading experience you hope for always but so seldom actually get. You'll miss subway stops, you'll sit in parked cars, and you'll put off TV and the like, as it weaves its spell and draws you deeper and deeper into the mystery of who poisoned fair Rosamund. And when you're done, just as in Mistress of the Arts of Death, you'll feel like you lived the book's events, instead of merely reading them. We here at Stevereads urge you to put both books at the top of your list and waste no time in reading them.


Beepy said...

For once Steve is correct. "Mistress in the Art of Death" was wonderful. I read it all in a day and then had an episode a day or two later where I couldn't remember if a scene in it was one I'd read or one I'd seen in a movie. The writing was that vivid!

I haven't read the new one, perhaps for the reason Steve mentioned, fear of disappointment. But now I can. Steve better be right a second time.

steve said...

oh, I'm not wrong! Unlike a certain SOMEBODY who told me, back in 1961, that 'buying stock in IBM is like throwing your money out the window!"


Anonymous said...

Thanks for pointing me to this excellent author, your judgement is clearly accurate. Who else do you like in the 'medieval fiction' stakes? Steve Johnson