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Saturday, July 30, 2016

Relics of the Dead. Ariana Franklin. Bantam Books (2009)

A very engaging and enjoyable historical mystery. In 1176 two skeletons are discovered in Glastonbury, one of the holiest sites in England and reputed to be the burial place of King Arthur. Henry II needs to establish the truth about the skeletons, they could provide a rallying point for the Welsh against his expanding rule. Henry sends Adelia Aguilar, the woman he calls his Mistress of the Art of Death to investigate. Adelia travels reluctantly and in the company of a friend who is trying to secure her inheritance from her husband's family. Adelia arrives at Glastonbury, which had  suffered a  recent major fire and starts her investigation. The reveals are cleverly set up and the plot uncoils in happily unexpected ways. The threads are deftly pulled together to a sharp and deeply satisfactory conclusion.
For any historical mystery context is critical, it has to be convincing and not obtrusive, Ariana Franklin manages this with tremendous confidence and skill. She spends very little time explaining anything, confident that the reader will pull the information from the context. This brings the reader very quickly into the story and the cast make the context work for them. The plot mechanics are in tune with the context, they could not simply be transferred to an alternative context. They catch the political and social dynamics of the time and this gives them weight and impact. The multiple threads of the story are all used imaginatively and carefully, each has a pay-off that does not distract or side track the story.
The cast are tremendous, they are full of energy and down to the smallest walk on part all demand the readers attention. Adriana Franklin takes an enjoyable risk by having a female lead, one who was trained in a foreign university and who travels with a Arabic attendant. This gives Adelia enough distance from the context to be able to investigate it with fewer preconceptions, it also creates the risk of plausibility. A woman challenging powerful men in a such a context could just feel like wishful thinking. Adriana Franklin avoids this due to her talent and craft, the precarious situation that Adelia occupies is always clear, her strength of character is also vivid and carries her forward. She is smart, competent, brave and frail all at the same time, she has the warmth and strength to make her utterly believable and to bring the story to glowing life.
With such a strong central character, the rest of the cast have the room to push forward as well and the dangerous situations that arise have a menace and force that they need. A pleasure to read.

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