Franklin, Ariana - 'The Assassin's Prayer'
Sadly Diana Norman, who wrote as Ariana Franklin, died earlier this year. This means that THE ASSASSIN'S PRAYER is the last of her award-winning series featuring the medieval pathologist Adelia Aguilar.
At the beginning of THE ASSASSIN'S PRAYER, Adelia is at home in Somerset watching the local villagers do battle in a time-honoured rough and tumble boundary game. As she watches the people around her, she realises that after years living a lie in a country far from her beloved Sicily - she is content.
Some years earlier King Henry II of England had begged the King of Sicily to send "a master of the art of death" to investigate a series of unexplained deaths. Henry would not have expected a woman; a woman physician is unthinkable in Plantaganet England. So Adelia Aguilar, hand-picked by the Head of Salerno's School of Medicine, learns to live a lie and plays "assistant" to Mansur, her Saracen companion, whilst he acts the part of "doctor". With a Catholic bishop for a lover and a six-year-old daughter by that lover, the lies are compounded.
But now her new-found contentment is disrupted – again at King Henry's command. Her lover, the Bishop of St Albans, tells Adelia that the King has ordered her to accompany his daughter, the young Princess Joanna, to marriage with the King of Sicily. But Adelia's longed-for return to Sicily will not be joyful. King Henry also demands that she travels without her own daughter, Almeison, whom she must leave behind. Henry values Adelia's skills and he intends to ensure her return to England. Enraged at the duplicity of her lover in agreeing to the King's plans, Adelia is blinded to everything else going on around her. Blinded to the fact that she in turn is being watched and that someone is planning for her ruin, someone so full of hatred that they pray they will be able to watch her suffer and die, someone cunning and determined enough to accompany her all the way to Sicily in order to do just that.
If I have any quibble with THE ASSASSIN'S PRAYER it is the amount of catch-up explanation written into its early pages. I can see the need for explanation and the introduction of familiar characters, but for me it did slow my engagement with the story itself. However once I became involved, the plot rolled along. We cross medieval Europe in the company of priests and princes, pirates and psychotics, saints and bigots. Disasters are engineered and people start to die, isolating Adelia and tightening the suspense until its final drama on the streets of Sicily.
Franklin's painstaking research into the different cultures and landscapes across medieval Europe results in vivid description and atmosphere. Her decision to write in current speech, not being able to bear what she called the "Gadzooks" school of historical fiction, increases the intimacy of her storytelling; it also makes for a chilling portrait of medieval Europe at a time when the light of tolerance is fading.
Regrettably, with Franklin's death, fans of Adelia Aguilar will have no alternative but to return to the previous novels in the series, but I think these intelligent and entertaining books hold enough substance to survive such a reread.
Read another review of THE ASSASSIN'S PRAYER.
Lynn Harvey, England