Grave Goods, by Ariana Franklin

It should be clear by now that I’m an appalling sexist, most especially in regard to novels written by women. There are certainly female authors I like (Sigrid Undset, Dorothy Sayers and P. D. James come to mind), but I approach novels written by women with almost (not quite; that would be impossible) the same level of trepidation I experience when approaching an actual woman in real life. Female novelists, in my experience, tend to a) write their male characters badly, and b) view the world through a Gender Studies lens.

I quickly decided that Ariana Franklin was an author in that mold as I read the historical mystery, Grave Goods. But persevering to the end, I decided I had been unjust (to a degree).

Franklin’s detective is Adelia Aguilar, a woman living in 12th Century England and attempting to operate as a physician. She’s a graduate of the School of Medicine in Salerno, but her sex prevents her from practicing legally. So she carries on the masquerade of being an assistant to Mansur, her eunuch Arab friend. He pretends to require her as an interpreter, while she does the actual diagnosis and treatment.

If that sounds a little implausible, I agree with you.

Adelia is in love with a man who was formerly a nobleman, but entered the church after she refused to marry him, and is now a bishop.

The mystery in Grave Goods surrounds the famous graves at Glastonbury. It’s not fiction that, after a devastating fire at the monastery and church there, a pair of skeletons were discovered in the graveyard. These were believed to be those of King Arthur and Guinevere. This discovery was useful to the church (which now had new relics to display) and to the Angevin kings, who were able to tell the rebellious Welsh, “Look, here’s King Arthur. He’s dead. He’s not sleeping in a cave, waiting to be awakened. He won’t be back to revive Britain. So you might as well accept the present government.”

King Henry II, who has employed Adelia before, summons her to Canterbury to examine the bones (hinting strongly that he would be very pleased if she declared them authentic). Adelia is not much impressed with this assignment, but becomes deeply concerned when a friend, who had traveled part of the way with her, completely disappears, along with her son and retinue, on the road. In trying to discover what happened, Adelia finds that the whole thing is intertwined with the puzzle of the Glastonbury skeletons, and she comes under threat from people who don’t want secrets disinterred.

I took a dislike to Adelia from the start. Her attitudes of scientific skepticism and hostility to men and male authority were just what I expected (and feared) in this kind of book. The woman was so clearly a modern feminist airdropped into an alien setting that it kept pulling me out of the story, reminding me that this was modern fiction. However, the author displayed more nuance than I expected. Adelia, it turns out, isn’t always right. She regrets some of her “enlightened” decisions, and finds that men aren’t always as stupid and unreliable as she expects.

All in all, the modern attitudes marred my enjoyment. The theology was very poor. But the story did draw me in and, in the end, compelled my interest.

I’d call it superior of its kind. Still more of a woman’s book than a man’s.

(This is another review of a pre-publication proof from G. P. Putnam’s Sons. The book was released in hardback this month.)

6 thoughts on “Grave Goods, by Ariana Franklin”

  1. I understand the jarring of modernism in historicals. I write in the Regency period and work very hard to keep everyone in the time. I allow an inkling of preception about humanity and such to come through, but for the most part, I keep everyone well within the status quo.

    I also work very hard to make my male protagonist as much of a Regency guy with manners as I can without putting off my mostly female audience. There are a lot of women who don’t want the modern whinefest that is the modern “hero.”

  2. Well, I’ve said it before. I suspect female readers find my women characters just as jarring. And the problem of bridging the cultural gap is a huge one. I’m not sure it would be impossible for a really learned writer to build a book around a truly authentic protagonist, but I’m not sure that protagonist would end up being very sympathetic. Flashman is a pretty good example, but he’s played for laughs.

  3. This reminds me of a critique my wife and a friend of ours had of the female lead in a recent novel *reviewed on this site.* They really disliked her acting like an immature boy when a man in the novel showed an interest in her. I thought it odd too, but I chalked it up to the character’s emotional baggage. It’s hard to write about unique people without putting off some readers. With non-fiction, you can argue that the person really did it that way, but with fiction, you have to be realistic to a degree.

  4. Part of the problem is that there are a lot of women who are not “typical.” We are not as feminine as our sisters and we enjoy conversations that are more oriented towards religion, politics, and some even talk sports rather than motherhood–though we are mothers–and other womanly topics. We are even tarred with the same brush as men in that we want to “fix” women who just seem to want to talk endlessly about their problems.

    I got blasted on Amazon for having too much nautical detail in my books rather than romance. But then I have women readers who love it. Go figure.

    Ricky Nelson was right: You can’t please everyone, so you’ve got to please yourself.

  5. I’m sorry to say that when I first read the author’s name, I read it as Aretha Franklin. (Who, me? Tired?) I had no idea that Aretha had started writing mysteries; and period mysteries at that!

    When I got all the way through Lars’ review without him mentioning anything about the Queen of Soul, I thought I’d better go back and take another look.

    Oh, dear. That’s not at all what it said.

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