The Serpent's Tale
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High in the upper chamber of Wormhold Tower—a monolithic structure located in the countryside of medieval Oxfordshire—a woman lies dying. Having exhausted her prayers to God, the attending nun, Sister Havis of nearby Godstow Abbey, calls for a priest to administer last rites. The dying woman’s pathologically devoted servant, Dame Dakers, appeals to a different power to save her master’s life, performing a ritual sacrifice to the Devil. But neither God nor the Devil can rescue the woman from an agonizing death, or shield England from the political firestorm that is sure to follow. For the woman writhing in her deathbed is Rosamund Clifford, famed mistress of King Henry II, and her death is no accident. And with Henry’s rebellious wife Eleanor freshly escaped from imprisonment, there seems little doubt of the culprit—and little hope of averting a civil war that will tear England to shreds.
Ariana Franklin’s The Serpent’s Tale features the return of Adelia Aguilar, hero of Mistress of the Art of Death. Thanks to her training at the forward-thinking School of Medicine in her native Salerno, Adelia is an alien in medieval England: a skilled forensic investigator in an age of ignorance and superstition, an educated and fiercely independent woman in a culture that considers women little more than property. She is now also the mother of an infant daughter, conceived during her brief but intense love affair with Rowley Picot, the newly appointed bishop of St. Albans. Barred from returning to her native Italy by King Henry himself —who sees her as a valuable, if largely neglected, resource—Adelia has come to feel at home among the fen people of Cambridgeshire. She has also convinced herself that her feelings for Picot have been extinguished, a self-deception that is quickly exposed when the bishop summons her to Cambridge. Adelia initially refuses to answer the call of the man who fathered her child and then retreated into a life of sanctity and celibacy. But Picot’s need for her is dire. Only Adelia has the knowledge and skills to prove Eleanor innocent of Rosamund’s murder, and only Eleanor’s exoneration will prevent Henry from unleashing a torrent of military retribution against her and her nascent army.
The Serpent’s Tale broadens the canvas from Adelia’s previous adventure, moving the action west to Oxfordshire and interweaving her story with the legendary tale of Henry Plantagenet and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Adelia’s investigation pits her against obstacles both manmade and natural, including the serpentine labyrinth surrounding Wormhold Tower and the harrowing snowstorm that smothers the countryside after she is captured by Eleanor. Forced to take shelter at Godstow Abbey, Adelia finds herself short on allies and surrounded by threats: the violently bickering factions of Eleanor’s mercenary army, the superstitious townspeople who suspect her as a witch, and an assassin who is systematically murdering anyone who might identify him. Desperate to protect her child but also determined to provide justice for the dead, Adelia once again finds herself face-to-face with a killer—and dangerously close to becoming his next victim.
Ariana Franklin, author of City of Shadows, is the pen name of British writer Diana Norman. A former journalist, Norman has written several critically acclaimed biographies and historical novels. She lives in Hertfordshire, England, with her husband, the film critic Barry Norman.
- In what ways has the character of Adelia changed since the events of Mistress of the Art of Death? How do her experiences in the earlier novel inform her actions in The Serpent’s Tale?
- Were you familiar with the legend of Henry and Eleanor before reading this book? How does Ms. Franklin’s portrayal of them compare to others you have read or seen? Did you learn anything about them that surprised you?
- Sister Havis remarks that the icehouse at Godstow Abbey was built “long before [the abbey’s] foundation,” quite possibly by the Romans. How do details such as these enrich the storytelling? What other details does the author employ to create a sense of time, place, and history in the novel?
- Some people's names in the novel are pointedly descriptive, such as the ill-humoured mercenary named Cross. What other character names seem intentionally selected in this way? How does this technique assist or enhance the storytelling?
- Much as a modern woman might, Adelia rejects many of the commonly held beliefs of medieval England, such as the inferiority of women and the existence of witchcraft. Are there also ways in which Adelia’s thinking seems a product of its time? How do you think she would fare in the modern world?
- In explaining his pious attitude towards his vows, Picot tells Adelia that a bishop is “…a keeper of other people’s souls. His own, yours… Adelia, it matters. I thought it would not, but it does.” Do you think Adelia is obligated to respect his beliefs? Would you consider it “immoral” if she tried to change his mind?
- Mother Edyve sees the rise of “courtly love” – what we would today understand as romance —as a step towards raising the status of women. Adelia sees it as “a pleasant hypocrisy… Love, honor, respect. When are they ever extended to everyday women?” From today’s perspective, whose view do you think has proven more accurate?
- How has Adelia’s role as a mother changed her view of the world? Do you think she would have been as personally invested in the fate of a character like Emma Bloat before the birth of her daughter? Overall, is motherhood an advantage or disadvantage for Adelia?