Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Serpent's Tale - Ariana Franklin

The Serpent's Tale is Ariana Franklin's second book about Adelia Aguilar. In this tale, Adelia is still in England, living with the Fen's, Mansur, and her infant daughter Allie when King Henry summons Adelia to investigate the poisoning murder of his mistress, Rosamund. The initial supposition is that Queen Eleanor had the mistress murdered, but Rowley does not believe that to be the case.

While Adelia is investigating at the home of Rosamund, Eleanor and her minions arrive with intentions of going to war with King Henry. They force everyone alive at Rosamund's home to travel with them, but they are ultimately forced to take up residence at the nunnery at Godstow for the winter - travel is impossible due to the snow and cold. On their way to the nunnery, another murder is discovered. And yet another murder takes place while they are confined to the nunnery. Adelia must discover who the murderer or murderers are before they harm her or her daughter. In the meantime she prays for the arrival of King Henry to rescue them all.

Ariana Franklin has a special talent for transporting her readers back in time. The Serpent's Tale, like Mistress of the Art of Death, takes place in Twelfth Century England. This time period puts her heroine at a distinct disadvantage because of the way women were treated during this time period. And Franklin doesn't discount that; instead, she uses that fact to develop her protagonist. It doesn't hurt that King Henry supports Adelia, though.

Adelia is one of my favorite female protagonists in crime fiction. She's smart, determined, educated; beneath that sometimes tough exterior, she's compassionate and gentle and kind. Adelia wrestles with the cultural beliefs that allow women to be mistreated in this time and place. Adelia, being from the forward-thinking city of Salerno and also having forward-thinking foster parents, wasn't subjected to many of these cultural norms before coming to England. And while there is little she can do to change their ways, she does use some rather conniving approaches to improving a few women's lives. As the reader, you can't help but cheer her on.

The character of Mansur is as wonderful as ever. He's often just a silent player in the background, but that is what makes his character so powerful. I think I identify with him because he IS silent. He, like I learned many years ago, learns most by simply listening. He is at an advantage in this realm because most of the English people who surround him don't believe he can understand what they are saying, so they speak freely around him. But still, listening is a powerful tool, and he uses it to his advantage.

The addition of Allie in this book brought further depth to Adelia's character. At the conclusion of Mistress, Adelia's feelings for children, specifically Ulf, were heightened. That attitude combined with her love for Rowley makes her attachment to Allie completely natural. It also brings out the softer, more vulnerable side of Adelia.

Franklin's portrayal of Queen Eleanor was quite fascinating. Of course, the Queen is also a woman, and while a woman of power, still a woman. Adelia begins to see some of the same barriers in front of the Queen that are in front of every woman in this time period.

While there isn't a lot of question about who is responsible for the murders in this plot, it is still a page-turner. This is not a book where a murder occurs at the beginning and the remainder of the plot is investigating that one murder. Instead a murder occurs, investigation begins, more murder and mayhem, more investigation. I think you get the picture; the action mimics the chaos of this period with mercenaries running loose at the behest of this queen. And of course the reader is constantly waiting for King Henry to show up.

Yes, King Henry. Franklin illustrates King Henry toward the end of the novel in a manner I found eerily relevant to so many people throughout history, and even to some people today in America's time of turmoil:

Because you outstripped them, Adelia thought. In your impatience, you outstrip everybody, your wife, your son, Becket, and expect them to love you. They are people of our time and you are not; you see beyond the boundaries they set; you see me for what I am and use me for your advantage; you see Jews, women, even heretics, as human beings and use them for your advantage; you envisage justice, tolerance, unattainable things. Of course nobody keeps up with you.

Oddly enough, the one mind she could equate with his was Mother Edyve's. The world believed that what was now was permanent, God had willed it, there could be no alteration without offending Him.

Only a very old woman and this turbulent man had the sacrilegious impudence to question the status quo and believe that things could and should be changed for the betterment of all people.

The turbulence of the time period, the amazingly intricate characters and an exotic setting all add up to an incredible novel. Another wonderful book by Ariana Franklin.


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