On the one hand I enjoyed this novel very much. Ariana Franklin is a consummate story teller and her characters and the setting in which they act and react are wonderfully realised. You can actually believe you are there with them. There are some delightfully realised secondary personages. I was particularly fond of eelwife Gytha and her cheeky urchin son, Ulf. Henry II is spot on and I really warmed to Ariana Franklin's version of this fiercely intelligent king with his mingling of imperious authority and the mischievous common touch. It's a page turner, no doubt about it and for all the above reasons I would be glad to give it five stars.In Cambridge a child has been hideously murdered and other children have disappeared. The Jews, made scapegoats by the all powerful Christian clergy have been forced to retreat into the castle to avoid slaughter by the angry townspeople. Henry, King of England is displeased. The Jews provide a large part of his revenue and therefore the real killer must be found and quickly,. A renowned investigator, Simon of Naples, is recruited, and arrives in town from the Continent accompanied by an Arab and a young woman, Adelia Aguilar.
There are few female doctors in 12thC Europe but Adelia is one of them, having qualified at the great school of medicine in Salerno. What's more, her speciality is the study of corpses; she is in fact a mistress of the art of death, skill that must be concealed in case she's accused of witchcraft. Adelia's investigation takes her deep into Cambridge, its castles and convents, and in a medieval city teeming with life, she makes friends and even finds romance. And fatally, attracts the attention of a murderer who is prepared to kill again...
However.... Abandon any hope of historical veracity when you come to this novel. There are the usual detail errors that irk me because I know my 12th century. Mention of brandy and laudanum which were not available in the Middle Ages - so therefore some of the scenes could never have happened. Henry II talking about his billiard table (conjures a hilarious image of Henry with his cue in hand leaning over a table in the smoky fug of a bar!) or having his head referred to as a cannon ball, yanked me out of the story. There are errors peppered throughout the novel both the large and the small, of detail and of mindset.
The heroine is a woman of 21st century sensibilities, who also acts like a 21st century TV forensic expert. There's a moment when she comes to examine her first victim when she garbs herself in the medieval equivalent of scrubs and with an assitant to write down the findings with chalk and slate begins: 'The anger went out of her voice and she began speaking in a monotone. 'The remains of a young female. Some fair hair still attached to the skull...' At this point I burst out laughing because it was so preposterous. The author tells us that Salerno had a body farm where pigs were killed and buried in different circumstances and seasons so that the students could observe the various states of decay. This again caused much mirth. I have the kind of mind that wonders about practicalities too. At the beginning of the novel, Adelia saves the life of a prior by draining his swollen bladder using a straw catheter. Said prior then makes a full and complete recovery and is a perky, helpful chap as the novel continues. But to have that condition in the first place speaks of serious underlying problems. So to have him one moment dying of a blocked bladder and the next fit as a flea just doesn't ring true.
The best way to read this book if you are at all sensitive about historical veracity, is to lock up your disbelief before you begin reading. Make a pact to treat AF's medieval Cambridge as an alternative world and you will really enjoy this novel. I give this 10 out of 10 for characterisation, atmosphere and page turning quality, 6 out of 10 for the mystery element and 3 out of 10 for historical accuracy. Three stars I think to average things out.