Never Tried This Before II & A Book Review

First off, here’s the updating "reading right now" list:
The Spymaster's Lady by Jo Bourne (sneaking reads in between writing!)
Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin (started two days ago)
Ephesus by ? from 1865 (from GoogleBooks)
Cook with Jamie Oliver (almost finished)
The Jerusalem Bible (at Hosea)
rereading The Return of the King (Sam!)
Tales Before Tolkien short stories (reading every once in a while)
Australian Short Stories (ditto)
I, Cladius (fun research)
Der Ruf der Trommel (Drums of Autumn) by Diana Gabaldon (on the train)
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (reading every once in a while)
Paradise Lost by John Milton (reading every once in a while)
The Divine Comedy: Hell by Dante (reading every once in a while)
The Lord of the Rings: A Reader's Companion by Hammond and Scull (reading concurrently with LoTR)

I was really looking forward to reading Mistress of the Art of Death. A number of other writers recommended the book, and the premise sounded so interesting – a medical mystery! Not to mention that it takes place in England in 1171, which is the sort of setting that guarantees my giving a book a chance (as opposed to, say, the Carolinas in 1776, which I only care for when seen through the eyes of Jamie and Claire. But I digress). Yet, I am sadly disappointed. There are two main counts against the book:

1. Choppy writing. I try to avoid new books, and rarely read anything published before 1954 (the date of the Lord of the Rings), mainly because 21st Century writing styles are generally so off-hand and slapdash. The trend seems to be toward short sentences and quick jumps, as evidenced in other books such as Jason Goodwin’s The Janissary Tree, which I only read, of course, because it takes place in Turkey (I’ll read the sequel for the same reason, even though I don’t like his style and don’t think much of his research. A much better written and much more thoroughly researched book in the same vein is Jenny White’s The Sultan’s Seal). However, now that I’m reading Joanna Bourne’s The Spymaster’s Lady at the same time, and have such a perfect example of what masterful writing one can achieve using short sentences and simple turns of phrase, it’s even harder to wade through Franklin’s book. Especially given:

2. A lack of narrator or defined point of view (pov) character. In the first three chapters alone we have: an omniscient eye; a disembodied voice; an old man; another old man and a king’s representative doing a little head hopping; a confused mass of voices coalescing into Adelia’s pov; then the povs of the men around her; and (finally!) a nameless silent figure crawling up the side of a hill. Complete omniscience, when done well, leads the reader to trust the narrator (such as Tolkien does in The Hobbit). Third person pov lets the reader sympathise with one or more main characters (c.f. The Spymaster’s Lady). But the skipping about in Mistress of the Art of Death only leads the reader to ask “whose side am I on?” If the reader is supposed to empathise with Adelia (as the book jacket would have one decide) then how is it that the journey to England and the mystery she is set to solve are not first divulged through her eyes?
Finally, although believable in the context, the death of her nurse and companion/escort on the way from Italy to England, leaving Adelia unfettered in England, does seem slightly gratuitous. Yes, it’s the 12th Century and medical care for the elderly is not well advanced. And yet! Almost from the first the various narrators imply that Adelia is the best doctor around, much advanced for her time.
The most incongruous by far, however, is Adelia dealing with Prior Geoffrey’s prostate trouble by the side of the road (she uses boiling water!) – not once throughout the entire chapter is his diseased named, which would surely be frustrating for any other reader. I myself only happen to recognise his trouble because it appears to be exactly the same ailment that Claire diagnosed in Lord Lovat in Diana Gabaldon’s Dragonly in Amber!

All that to say, I haven't given up yet. I'm only on Chapter Three, and hopefully the threads will start to come together soon. Just think, I almost stopped reading Outlander the first time around because of that line about the shops being full again in 1945! As if rationing and shortages had not continued for years and years in the UK after the war. Now, if *I* had been the copy editor, I would never have let that one go past! *nudge, nudge, wink, wink*


NBB said…
I've been meaning to ask you before: how are you faring with Der Ruf der Trommel? :)
Deniz Bevan said…
Slowly! I've been doing a lot of research in the past two weeks and have been completely distracted by The Spymaster's Lady in the past couple of days... I think as soon as I finish I Claudius I'll return to Jamie und Claire :-)
NBB said…
Oh I can relate!

Spymaster's Lady grabs you and won't let go (not even after finishing to read) :)

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