As soon as I’d finished reading The Death Maze I began Ariana Franklin’s third book in her Mistress of the Art of Death series, Relics of the Dead. Now this one was more to my liking and I enjoyed it very much.
The date is 1176, the setting is Glastonbury where the monks, after a fire had destroyed their monastery, discovered two skeletons buried in their graveyard. The question is – are these the remains of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere? The problem is that Henry II needs evidence that they are not – that the legendary Arthur is indeed dead and not the ‘Once and Future King’, sleeping but waiting for the right time to lead the belligerent Welsh against him. Henry’s solution is to send Adelia Aguilar, the anatomist, to examine the bones for evidence, preferably to establish that no one can say that the bones are not that of Arthur and his queen. Given that this is the 12th century and the technology wasn’t there to prove the age and identity of the bones, Adelia assisted by Mansur, does a pretty good job in her investigation, despite attempts on her life.
Where Relics of the Dead stands out is in the depiction of Glastonbury, a mysterious, spiritual place, ‘one of the world’s sacred centres, a place where the division between man and God was thinner than anywhere else‘, a place where ‘there was a special magnetism that pulled people to worship a presence her long before Christ had set foot on his native heath.’ But Adelia, that down-to-earth, practical woman couldn’t feel it – for her all mysteries had to have an explanation. And she was determined to find it.
I’ve always liked the stories about King Arthur and the beliefs about his life and death, about Excalibur (which does feature in this book), about Guinevere’s affair with Lancelot, and the Holy Grail (which do not). As well as a strong sense of place and atmosphere the characters are well-drawn and believable, even if some aspects of the plot required quite a hefty suspension of disbelief (which I managed easily enough).
Similarly I wasn’t bothered by Franklin’s use of modern language – in her Author’s Note, she had noted that she was sometimes criticised for making her characters use modern language and explained that ‘in 12th century England the common people spoke a form of English even less comprehensible than Chaucer’s in the 14th, the nobility spoke Norman French and the clergy Latin. Since people then sounded contemporary to each other, and since I hate the use of what I call ‘Gadzooks’ in historical novels to denote a past age, I insist on making them sound contemporary to us.’ If she had used such ‘gadzooks’ language I don’t think I’d have got very far into the book. And, it didn’t occur to me that her dialogue was anachronistic.
Franklin also used a lot of terms common to the age, such as ‘Mort d’Ancestor’, which she did explain within the text, so that that too did not bother me. In fact I liked it, I think it added to the atmosphere and I did enjoy looking up such terms for more information in a book I used to use a lot when I worked in a local archive repository – The Local Historian’s Encyclopedia by John Richardson, a fascinating book.