Review: The Serpent’s Tale by Ariana Franklin

My first book to count towards this year’s historical fiction challenge was published in the US as The Serpent’s Tale and in the UK as The Death Maze.

Adelia Aguilar’s second outing takes place more than a year after we first met her in Mistress of the Art of Death. Prevented from returning to her native Salerno in Italy by King Henry II in case he might need her again she has virtually retired to the English countryside with her trusted friends Mansur and Gyltha and her baby daughter Allie. However when Henry’s mistress Rosamund is murdered she is dragged back into the service of the King by Rowley Picot, now one of Henry’s Bishops but formerly Adelia’s lover. Henry’s wife Eleanor of Aquitaine is accused of murdering Rosamund but Rowley does not believe her to be the murderer and wants Adelia to uncover the truth before the country erupts into the bloody war that would surely result if Henry’s wife was found to have murdered his favourite mistress. On their way to Rosamund’s home Adela’s party discover the body of a young man near the nunnery of Godstow, a case which Adelia is also called on to investigate during the later part of the novel.

Adelia is still my favourite thing about the series and here her behaviour is probably more believable than it was in the first book as her willingness to put herself in danger is tempered, a little, by wanting to keep her daughter safe. However she is still fiercely principled and determined to find out the truth of each situation, even if the person at the centre of the event is considered an insignificant nobody. And again Adelia’s place in the world is precariously balanced as she has to continue pretending that it is Mansur who has the medical knowledge because if it was widely known to be her, a mere woman, she would be accused of witchcraft. In fact the role of women in this society continues to be a theme that Franklin explores, here primarily via a storyline in which a young women of high birth is promised to a man she does not love but when she attempts to forge her own life she is thwarted and reminded that she is little more than someone else’s property.

Franklin is a master at using a mixture of fact and fiction, people and place to create a world that she draws readers into. Whether it be lost in the maze that protects Rosamund’s towering home or bailing out the water from the boat being dragged down the nearly frozen Thames or inside the nunnery at Godstow, where for one reason or another all the characters descend for a good portion of the story, I felt like I was there thanks to Franklin’s imagery and period details. I particularly enjoy her portrait of King Henry as a leader so far ahead of everyone else in both thought and practice that he can never achieve everything he wants. It’s an interesting perspective and well-drawn too.

Undoubtedly one of the downsides of producing such an assured debut is living up to that standard and, for me at least, The Serpent’s Tale didn’t quite manage it. With two seemingly unconnected murders and a lot of other extraneous events it just didn’t feel quite as tightly written and suspense-filled to me, though the main thread was quite fascinating and certainly got dramatic towards the end. However, being slightly less than utterly brilliant still makes for a very entertaining novel that I highly recommend to fans of historical fiction.

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The Serpent’s Tale has been reviewed at Euro Crime three times (1, 2, 3) and at Jen’s Book Thoughts

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

My rating 4/5
Author website
Publisher Berkley Books [2008]
ISBN 9780425225745
Length 386 pages
Format trade paperback
Book Series #2 in the Adelia Aguilar/Mistress of the art of death series
Source I bought it

This entry was posted in 2011 Historical Fiction Challenge, Ariana Franklin, book review, England. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Review: The Serpent’s Tale by Ariana Franklin

  1. Maxine says:

    I haven’t read either this one or the previous one, though I did buy the first one on the basis of hearing the author read/talk about it, she is very charming and erudite. A couple of family members have read the first and like it, so I should try to get into it, despite my usual lack of liking for historical fiction (another one of those genres I read too much of as a teenager to want to revisit now). Your review sounds very tempting, for a while I lived near the site of Rosamund’s bower and her name and legend live on locally. I think that Eleanor of A is still widely held to be responsible despite what Arianna Franklin says, so maybe I really should read this book to get another side of the story. Eleanor A is one of England’s most admirable queens, I think, though – a very strong, dominant character in various ways, in times when a woman’s place was definitely considered to be in the home.


  2. Jose Ignacio says:

    Thanks for your fine review, Bernadette. I like history but I’m less keen on history fiction, however I’ll probably give these books a try.


  3. Bernadette – Thanks for this excellent review :-). It’s not easy to explore larger issues like the roles of women, class and social structure issues and so on without getting preachy; I’m glad you didn’t find this one cross that line.


  4. kathy durkin says:

    On the basis of this review, I’m going to purchase the first book in the series for a friend who loves historical fiction; she’s a retired health care professional and would like the health and science angle, and the key role of Adelia, as an opening into seeing what life was like then for a woman of a certain class. And then I, not usually a fan of historical fiction–to my own detriment (I could learn a lot)–will borrow it from her and read it.


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