The Serpent’s Tale by Ariana Franklin is one of those books I bought when I was younger but that ended up on my “did not finish” list. I think it was a little out of my reading range at the time. Now that I’ve read it as an adult though, I see it with new appreciation.
The Serpent’s Tale is a mystery that takes place in medieval England during the 12th century. The mistress of King Henry II, Rosamund Clifford has been poisoned. Naturally, everyone’s pointing the finger at Henry’s wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Henry has imprisoned Eleanor for pitting their sons against him. If Eleanor is to blame, the threat of civil war looms over England, promising to be a repeat of the Stephen and Matilda war. That’s why Henry calls on Adelia Aguilar, also known as the mistress of the art of death to investigate and find out what really happened.
She’s not happy to be summoned away from the fenlands by Henry. She’s been enjoying her life in the fenlands with her baby and friends. Obeying his summons also means working with her baby’s father, Rowley Picot, the Bishop of St. Albans. Solving the case takes Adelia deeper into other mysteries, both outside and inside the walls of the Godstow nunnery, where she and her friends are held hostage by a brutal winter and Eleanor’s mercenaries. The clock is ticking as more bodies are found and Eleanor’s forces are getting ready to strike at Henry.
I absolutely loved this book and finished it in about eleven days. It’s thrilling, full of well-researched details and has a compelling heroine. Adelia’s profession is quite unusual given the time period but Franklin reminds readers that the world is constantly changing and in flux, no matter the time period. The book is a not only a fascinating mystery but a testament to human nature. People are still people and they want the same thing they’ve always wanted: love, respect, equality. The position of women in society is a big theme throughout the novel, especially in regard to Adelia’s character. She’s respected by King Henry II but not by her peers. She has to pretend she’s someone else and hide behind that identity to protect herself. Try as she might though, her sleuthing activities get her into trouble when she’s not careful. As a result of this, she’s accused of being a witch, which not only endangers her but the case as well.
Despite this, Franklin does a great job of reminding readers that women were fighting for their rights in the 12th century. It’s said that Eleanor of Aquitaine had a “Court of Love” in Poitiers, France where she encouraged the idea of troubadours, chivalry and courtly love. It’s widely debated but I don’t think it’s that far-fetched, given all the descriptions I’ve read about Eleanor’s bold and spirited personality that shocked her northern counterparts in France. I’ve been intrigued with Eleanor of Aquitaine ever since I first learned about her from the book, Eleanor: Crown Jewel of Aquitaine, France, 1136, which is a historical fiction book, written in diary form from Eleanor’s point of view.
Franklin also touched on the idea of forward-thinking men as well. Henry II and Rowley Picot were characterized as men ahead of their time. Franklin painted Henry II as a man who unified England, loved his people, and tried to keep order and justice in his kingdom. I think in many ways he was a man ahead of his time. Rowley is also a character–who although can seem unaccepting of others such as Adelia and his effeminate messenger, Jacques–joins forces with Adelia and recognizes her need for independence, even if reluctantly.
Another reason why I loved this book was the historical detail. I enjoy learning about history, especially medieval history so this book was right up my alley. I have a newfound respect for nunneries during the Middle Ages because they were places of refuge and independence for unmarried and widowed women, who refused to follow the life society wanted for them. The nunnery at Godstow is a central setting in the book–a place where the nuns are challenged by the outside world but then forced to assert themselves.
All in all, The Serpent’s Tale is a book that will keep you guessing, make you laugh and interest you with its cast of characters that seem to come alive off the page. It wasn’t difficult to give this one five out of five stars on Goodreads. If you like thrilling mysteries, medieval history and a strong heroine, The Serpent’s Tale is a great read.