Book Review: The Serpent's Tale

Synopsis according to Goodreads:
"Rosamund Clifford, the mistress of King Henry II, has died an agonizing death by poison—and the king's estranged queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, is the prime suspect. Henry suspects that Rosamund's murder is probably the first move in Eleanor's long-simmering plot to overthrow him. If Eleanor is guilty, the result could be civil war. The king must once again summon Adelia Aguilar, mistress of the art of death, to uncover the truth. 

Adelia is not happy to be called out of retirement. She has been living contentedly in the countryside, caring for her infant daughter, Allie. But Henry's summons cannot be ignored, and Adelia must again join forces with the king's trusted fixer, Rowley Picot, the Bishop of St. Albans, who is also her baby's father. 

Adelia and Rowley travel to the murdered courtesan's home, in a tower within a walled labyrinth—a strange and sinister place from the outside, but far more so on the inside, where a bizarre and gruesome discovery awaits them. But Adelia's investigation is cut short by the appearance of Rosamund's rival: Queen Eleanor. Adelia, Rowley, and the other members of her small party are taken captive by Eleanor's henchmen and held in the nunnery of Godstow, where Eleanor is holed up for the winter with her band of mercenaries, awaiting the right moment to launch their rebellion. 

Isolated and trapped inside the nunnery by the snow and cold, Adelia and Rowley watch as dead bodies begin piling up. Adelia knows that there may be more than one killer at work, and she must unveil their true identities before England is once again plunged into civil war.

Ariana Franklin is one of my favorite historical fiction/mystery writers, so given that I devoured her first in this series (Mistress of the Art of Death), I was really looking forward to diving into The Serpent's Tale. And I was not disappointed!

Like a good CSI show, this book keeps you guessing about the guilty party until the end. Even when Adelia figures it out, she doesn't say it (thus letting us readers in) until it's necessary. But beyond the deeper double-mystery driving the plot, there's a delightful attention to detail with the historical fiction side of things. Adelia Aguilar is an exceptional woman- trained at the School of Medicine in Salerno (which did admit female students!) and working in England, she's more analytical and calculating than almost everyone around her. By modern standards, she's an amazing woman. By period standards, she's frightening. But the struggles she must endure, and the broader strokes of church and state power struggles, attitudes toward women, classism, etc. are all beautifully woven into the story, providing an accurate (but not distracting) environment.

In short, I loved it. It was an excellent follow-up to her first novel, and I'm about to dive into the third one (which I think, sadly, is the last Adelia novel). I highly recommend it to fans of Ariana Franklin and the first book. However, if you haven't read the first you can still pick up the second without being lost- there's good exposition in there. If you like medieval historical fiction, strong (intelligent) female characters, good murder mysteries, rural England of the past, political power struggles, the discovery of scientific processes, and good should definitely pick this one up.

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