Franklin, Ariana - 'The Death Maze'
Ariana Franklin's THE DEATH MAZE (THE SERPENT'S TALE in the USA) is the sequel to her CWA Ellis Peters Award winning MISTRESS OF THE ART OF DEATH. Adelia Aguilar has not been allowed to return to the School of Medicine in Salerno. After her successful investigation into the child murders in Cambridge, Henry II regards her forensic skills too highly to let her return home, and she lives in the fenlands with her baby daughter Allie, Gyltha the eel-seller, and Mansur the castrato Marsh Arab.
But Rosamund Clifford, the King's mistress, has been poisoned and Adelia's former lover, Rowley, Bishop of St Alban's arrives in deep midwinter to take her to investigate the crime. Rosamund has been writing to Henry's wife Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine and it is suspected she has arranged the killing; if Adelia can help identify the poisoner a civil war may be avoided.
They all travel to Godstow Abbey on their way to Rosamund's abode Wormhold Tower. But before they reach Godstow they find the body of a young man, Talbot of Kidlington, left on a bridge with documents so that he can be easily identified. Adelia shrewdly suggests they hide the body in the convent ice-house and wait to see who comes to check on Talbot.
From Godstow's community of nuns and female pensioners they go on to Rosamund's Wormhold Tower protected by its labyrinthine maze and mad housekeeper Dame Dakers (I nearly put Mrs Danvers.) While Adelia is examining Rosamund's dead body they are seized by mercenaries under the command of Schwyz and the Bishop of Eynsham who are loyal to Queen Eleanor and in rebellion against King Henry. Adelia must survive the attentions of the mercenaries, avoid being accused of witchcraft and solve the murders while a skilled assassin watches and waits.
The difficulty with winning such a prestigious prize such as the CWA Ellis Peters award is that readers expect you to be able to repeat your success with a sequel of equal quality. This is difficult when the freshness of a new character and situation is not available to intrigue the reader.
THE DEATH MAZE is a good read but it did not seem to know whether it was meant to be a medieval action thriller or a medieval forensic investigation of a murder. The main theme of MISTRESS OF THE ART OF DEATH, the blood libel against the Jews, made for a more compact plot, but the themes in THE DEATH MAZE of women's position in society and the search for political power and the unconnected nature of the crimes made the story more rambling at times.
This is still a very good book, exciting, well written, with interestingly developed characters and a good feeling for time and place but I think the author tried to cover too much territory and as a result failed to reach the high standard of MISTRESS OF THE ART OF DEATH.
Norman Price, England