All is fair in love and war, so the saying goes. For Adelia Aguilar, the line between the two is about to get blurry when she is forced into a situation that is anything but fair.
Adelia, the heroine of Ariana Franklin's bestseller MISTRESS OF THE ART OF DEATH, is a Sicilian doctor specializing in autopsies. In THE SERPENT'S TALE she finds herself again in the service of King Henry II, who wants to know who murdered his mistress, Rosamund Clifford. Rosamund “The Fair” was poisoned in the tower in which she lived, surrounded by an imposing maze and tended to by the insanely protective Dakers. Henry's queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, is suspected of having a hand in her death. If she did, it may plunge the nation into violence and turmoil.
Adelia, along with her servant and constant traveling companion Mansur, a Muslim castrato, is summoned to help determine if Rosamund was indeed murdered. The last time the two worked for the king, Adelia not only solved the crime but fell in love and became pregnant. Accompanying them are her friend and housekeeper Gyltha and young daughter Allie. The four are joined by the newly appointed bishop of Saint Albans, Rowley Picot, former lover of Adelia's and little Allie's father. When the group reaches Rosamund's tower, they find her body decomposing yet still being cared for by the deranged Dakers. Before Adelia can do much investigation, the queen arrives, and Adelia and the others --- including the bishop's men --- are taken prisoner. All are moved to the convent at Godstow where, during an intense snowstorm, they are cooped up together.
With plenty of time on her hands, Adelia pays close attention to all the drama's major players. However, her efforts to solve the crime are nearly thwarted as her feelings for Rowley, missing out in the storm, almost get the better of her. When her daughter's life is threatened, Adelia's instinct is to abandon the investigation altogether. But her inquisitive mind won't let her rest, and she knows Henry's demands will be enforced. So, with bodies piling up and the possibility of not one but two crimes to solve, Adelia continues to ferret out the truth of Rosamund's death.
Just as in her previous novel, Franklin's story is great fun. Adelia is part “CSI” investigator and part medieval wise-woman --- and in this book motherhood adds a rich dimension to her character. The author works in politics, religion, gender issues, romance, mystery, violence, science, medicine and loyalty to THE SERPENT'S TALE without it seeming overwritten or overwrought. The pace is perhaps a bit slower than MISTRESS OF THE ART OF DEATH, but it is still dynamic. Especially compelling is the continuation of the exploration of ethnic identity and the roles of women --- ideas that, though set in the 12th century, resonate today.
With her tales of Adelia Aguilar, Franklin is taking historical fiction in an interesting and sophisticated direction.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on January 23, 2011