Sunday Salon ~ Relics of the Dead

70757~Cafe-Mocha-PostersIt isn’t often that I do a book review for the Salon, but everything seems to have got a bit out of kilter this week and I want to write about the new Ariana Franklin book, Relics of the Dead, while it is still on my mind and before I throw myself headlong into good old Titus Andronicus – reckless fool that I am.

I really enjoyed Mistress of the Art of Death, the first of Franklin’s books about the twelfth century anatomist, Adelia Aguilar, sent from Salerno to aid Henry II in his search for the murderers of missing Cambridge children, but was disappointed by the second, Death Maze,5151hHUYDXL._SL500_AA240_ and so I approached this, the third, in the series with some trepidation.

Well, I have to say that I think it’s much better than Death Maze, which would, of course, be a good thing, if it wasn’t for the reason I think it’s better.  My problem with its predecessor was that while the thrust of the concept behind the series is that women are perfectly capable of following the same professions as men, that particular novel only really came to life when one of the two principal male characters, Rowley, Bishop of St Albans, or Henry II, himself, was on the scene and they weren’t on the scene that much.  One of the main reasons that this is a much better book is that these two play substantially bigger parts and the writing, especially the dialogue lifts off the page as a result.

The year is 1176 and Henry II is having trouble with the Welsh, trouble he thinks he can put an end to once and for all (should someone tell him, do you think?) if only he can prove that King Arthur is not sleeping ready to lead them against their English oppressors, but well dead and buried.  So, when two skeletons turn up at Glastonbury, that he might just be able to claim to be those of Arthur and Guinevere he sends for the only person who might be able to give him evidence one way or the other, Adelia.

Of course, there are those who don’t want the skeletons to be Arthur and his wife and those that do and the two sides fight it out between them.  But, far more of a danger to Adelia and her protector, the Saracen, Mansur, are those who don’t want it to come to light exactly who those skeletons were in real life.  As I said, there is a fair bit of Henry and a lot of Rowley and the story tumbles along at a splendid lick as a result.

So, no more about the plot in case I give too much away.  However, this book did set me thinking about a couple of other matters.  The first was to do with Glastonbury.  I have only been there once and that has been an absolutely deliberate decision on my part.

There is a lot of talk in the book about the atmosphere of the place, the feelings of unease, of a power beyond human explanation that is experienced by many of the people who find themselves there.  Adelia scoffs at this and I have to say that under normal circumstances so would I.  I do explanations.  But the one time I was in Glastonbury  I was spooked and when we climbed to the top of the Tor for the only time in my life I was completely disorientated; I couldn’t have told you where North was to save my life and normally that is something I can always do.  I came down from there as fast as I could and I would not and will not go back.  When I think of Glastonbury now I try to put that out of my mind and remember instead the sign we saw there that advertised homegrown bananas.  I’m still trying to work that one out.

The second thing I found interesting was that while Franklin insists twice that what Henry will be remembered for in history is the killing of Thomas a Beckett, that has never been what I have remembered him for.  I don’t know why, but when I think of Henry II what I think of is the man who laid the foundations for a rule of law that served the common people as well as those of noble (Norman) birth.  It was Henry who introduced the jury system and he was also responsible for the standardization of our weights and measures.

Where did I first encounter this man, and who was it who taught me to see him as a seriously good thing rather than the butcher that so many feel him to be?  I can’t remember.  I just know that that is the way I see him and every time he turns up in Franklin’s narrative I feel my spirits rise.  He may be quick tempered and manipulative, but his real concern is for the people.  Beckett’s was for the Church.  Given the corruption of the time.  I know whose side I would have been on.

Published in: on August 30, 2009 at 9:43 am  Comments (5)  

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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Hmm, there’s just the teensy problem of Henry and women, too, but I do know what you mean, and he put in a couple of tremendous appearances in Mistress of the Art of Death. I haven’t read the second (actually, I think you put me off it slightly so I didn’t try getting it from the library) but I shall whizz through it looking forward to the third, now.

  2. That looks a good series, I’ll look out for them!

  3. Yes, GC, that is an issue, but it still isn’t what I think of first when I think of Henry. You will need to read the second book if you’re going to make head or tails of Relics of the Dead. It probably isn’t that bad!

    Lacer , they are definitely worth giving a try. They would be a good read to while away the time while you’re sitting in a wet tent. A lot of the people would be surviving in even worse conditions than you. It might make you feel better about soggy ground sheets!

  4. Very interesting review. I’ve often thought of reading this author but have always come across only ambivalent reviews of her work. Still not sure whether I’ll actually tackle her or not! I’m just about to try Susanna Gregory, who is in similar territory and seems to please more people.

  5. I haven’t tried Gregory, Litlove, so I’ll be very interested to hear what you think. I’ve just passed Relics of the Dead on to a friend who reads a lot of historical fiction and certainly likes Franklin better than I do. I must ask her what she thinks of Gregory as well.

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