Franklin’s heroine, physician Adelia Aquilar, graduate of the Palermo School of medicine, remains embroiled in English politics thanks to the demands of Henry II. Since first bringing this “Mistress of the Art of Death” to England to help resolve a rash of murders, Henry has been unwilling to grant Adelia passage home, promising, but with always one more problem he needs Adelia’s expertise to solve.
Seven years after her arrival, Adelia has a young daughter and an unfailing passion for Sir Rowley Picot, and archbishop of the Church and the father of her child. Adelia’s dilemma is two-fold: to practice medicine openly is to risk accusation as a witch, and Rowley’s position in the church bars the couple from ever enjoying the benefits of marriage.
Instead, the beleaguered lovers engage in arguments that grow of mutual frustration with a society that keeps them apart. Meanwhile Adelia travels with her friend, Mansur, a Moor, who speaks only Arabic and acts as the physician, Adelia his translator. The adventure this time is found on a journey, Adelia part of the escort of the king’s daughter, Joanna, to Palermo, Sicily, where she will wed William II of Sicily. The joy Adelia feel is short-lived when Henry announces that he will keep her daughter safe in England with Queen Eleanor until Adelia’s safe return and the completion of the mission.
To make matters more dangerous, Arthur’s sword, Excalibur, is secreted among the travelers, on its way to William II should it safely reach its destination. Only Adelia, Rowley and her few most trusted men know of the fact, but that does not keep the information from leaking out, adding yet another layer of intrigue to an already murderous procession.
The journey is not without its challenges, including a nasty murderer from a former novel, returned to get revenge on Adelia for killing his lover; an assortment of doctors and Church officials who resent Adelia’s efforts on behalf of her charge and the impoverished sick along the way; and an Irish sea captain who rescues Adelia when Rowley cannot, causing even more fractiousness between Adelia and the father of her child.
With her usual attention to period detail, Franklin delivers another consistent and engrossing adventure, her characters representative of the social conflicts and mores of the times, the long tentacles of the Roman Catholic Church spreading into Palermo, a great city of varied cultures and religions: “No true asylum here from the rich, omnipotent enemy that surrounded them.”
Chilled by what she witnesses of the Church’s power along the route to Palermo, Adelia uncharacteristically struggles to deny the evil that threatens her, perhaps because of her distraction over her daughter. I prefer the tougher, more fearless Mistress of the Art of Death, one who does not dismiss the murders along the way as accidents, who would not turn away from the ugly reality of an evil man following her with intentions to do harm. By the end of this long procession, Adelia will need all her wits to save herself, her lover and the small world they have created.