The five page prologue of Ariana Franklin's "The Serpent's Tale" may be the best part of the book. An assassin who calls himself Sicarius ponders his tradecraft. For him, killing people is strictly business; he is annoyed with clients who make a big production out of the preliminaries. They insist on donning silly disguises, and demand that he meet with them in remote and drafty locales. He would prefer to conduct the necessary transactions without so much fuss, but human nature being what it is, assassins must be patient with their customer's peccadilloes. After this tongue-in-cheek introduction, the author indicates that a serious dispute may be brewing between King Henry II and his irate Queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Precipitating the rift is the suspicious death of Henry's mistress, Rosamund Clifford, who died after eating poisonous mushrooms.
Caught in the middle of what could potentially result in a civil war is our heroine, the brilliant and unconventional Adelia Aguilar, originally of Salerno, Italy. Adelia has a baby girl, Allie, but she refused to wed the child's father lest she be forced to give up her identity and profession. Although she would like to take her daughter back to her sunny homeland, she has been commanded by the King to stay in England so that he can take advantage of her medical skill and expertise in investigating deaths, both natural and unnatural. Adelia still loves Allie's father, Rowley Picot, the Bishop of Saint Albans, but marriage is out of the question. Her top priority is to learn the identity of the person who orchestrated Rosamund's death; unfortunately, she is repeatedly thwarted by a determined and stealthy killer.
The plot is initially intriguing. Could Rosamund's agonizing death have been an accident? Perhaps someone picked the mushrooms not realizing that they were lethal. Adelia, who is as observant as she is intelligent and intuitive, examines the evidence and uses her keen powers of deduction to conclude that Rosamund was indeed murdered. A series of complicated events, including a persistent snowstorm, place the main characters behind the walls of Godstow Abbey, where they are forced to while away the time with Queen Eleanor and her entourage. More killings ensue, and Adelia fears that she and her friends may be next on the assassin's hit list.
At Adelia's side is the devoted Mansur, a Saracen who speaks with her in Arabic and pretends to be a doctor, while she acts as his assistant and translator for show; Glytha is a loving friend who tends to Allie while Adelia is busy risking her life; Rowley is loyal to Henry and cares for Adelia but feels constrained by the demands of his new role as bishop. Queen Eleanor, a proud and still striking woman, bitterly resents her husband's faithlessness. The secondary characters include bloodthirsty mercenaries, a formidable and resourceful group of nuns, and a young woman who is betrothed to a monster.
Franklin has a delightful sense of humor and a refreshing forthrightness. She captures the spirit and atmosphere of life in medieval England, a time when the underclass was completely at the mercy of the rich and powerful. Alas, "The Serpent's Tale" falters badly in the second half; for long stretches, very little happens. The conclusion is somewhat anticlimactic and lacks the spice of the opening pages. Although the novel takes place in the twelfth century, Franklin inserts a modern sensibility into the narrative that is a bit jarring at times. In addition, the bad guys are one-dimensional and rather dull; a boring villain is always a fatal flaw in a mystery. By the time all of the myriad threads are finally unraveled, many readers will feel exhausted rather than exhilarated.
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