Franklin, Ariana - 'Relics of the Dead'
Glastonbury 1154: an earthquake has struck the Abbey and the dying Brother Caradoc sees three people carrying a coffin and lowering it into a fissure that has opened in the ground. Does the coffin contain the dead King Arthur, whom legend says still sleeps in the surrounding hills awaiting a call to arms from his Celtic subjects? Brother Caradoc tells what he has seen to his nephew the Welsh bard, Rhys.
March 1176: Henry II suppresses a Welsh rebellion and after intervention by his mother the bard Rhys ransoms himself with the tale of what occurred that night in Glastonbury. Henry Plantagenet is keen to have the legendary Dark Age hero Arthur buried in a grave, where his presence will take away hope from the Welsh rebels and also create a pilgrimage centre to rival Canterbury.
The monks at Glastonbury Abbey, which along with the town has been ravaged by fire dig up the coffin and find two skeletons. Are they King Arthur and his Queen Guinevere? Someone needs to confirm the age of the bones and only one person in the Kingdom can provide the necessary verification.
Enter Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar, qualified doctor from the school of medicine at Salerno, who has been forced to flee her fenland home due to allegations of heresy. She is accompanied by her daughter Allie, the woman of the fenland Gyltha, who is the child's nurse, and Mansur her Arab attendant with whom Gyltha shares her bed. At the priory they meet up with Lady Emma Wolvercote (previously seen in THE DEATH MAZE), her baby son Pippi, and her German champion Master Roetger.
Lady Emma is going to tour her estates and claim Wolvercote Manor, near Wells, from her mother-in-law. When Henry's men at arms take Adelia's party off to Wales to meet the King, Emma proceeds on to Wolvercote Manor. But when Adelia and her companions return from Wales they find that Emma, Pippi and Roetger have disappeared, and that great danger awaits them in the ruined Abbey and town of Glastonbury.
We read crime fiction mainly to be entertained and Ariana Franklin's third book RELICS OF THE DEAD is a wonderfully enjoyable, totally unpretentious, adventure story. I loved the way continual thrilling cliffhanger situations were thrust into Adelia and Mansur's path. Some people might criticize the seemingly too modern feminist attitudes of Adelia, but this was a time of the Crusades and limited life expectancy; women would have been left to fend for themselves so I am fairly sure they would develop considerable self-sufficiency and an independent spirit, especially an educated woman like Adelia. The further back in time historical crime fiction is set, the more artistic license we can allow the author, if the book is both entertaining and educational. I don't mind the characters using modern language because as the author points out, the common people spoke an incomprehensible form of early English, the nobility Norman French and the clergy Latin. The narrative was fast paced and exciting and the plot was engrossing, especially the on-off relationship between Adelia and Bishop Rowley, Allie's father, a common situation in the Middle Ages I expect. The descriptions of Somerset were evocative of an earlier forested England and the characters believable in that setting.
I enjoyed this book immensely and I find Adelia a beguiling heroine in a fascinating historical setting, and I would gladly read more about both. The book's ending gave us promise of more adventures and more ordeals for the lady doctor from Salerno.
Ariana Franklin's first Adelia Aguilar novel, MISTRESS OF THE ART OF DEATH, won the CWA Ellis Peters Historical Award 2007 and the Sue Feder Memorial Historical Mystery Award 2008. With RELICS OF THE DEAD she has written another book that should be a strong contender for awards.
(NB. RELICS OF THE DEAD is published as GRAVE GOODS in the United States.)
Norman Price, England