Every now and then the historical fiction genre manages to surprise me. And to be honest, that's not very often. I have a few authors that I buy automatically when they release a book, whether it be a hardback or not, as I have yet to be really disappointed in their work, and when the announcement comes that they have something new on the horizon, my attitude suddenly becomes, Oh, I want it now!
Recommend this product?
Now I think I have a new author to add to that list.
The time and place is the Italian renaissance, in the late 16th century, when Italy was carved up into tiny city-states, each with its own ruling family and political alliances with their neighbors and foreign powers. One of the most splendid is the state of Ferrara, where the d'Este family reigns, and the young duke, Alfonso, is taking a new bride, a daughter of the imperial house of Hapsburg and the sister of the current Holy Roman Emperor.
Barbara of Austria, twenty-six, with reddish blond hair and no great beauty knows what it is that she must do in Ferrara: bear a son for the Duke and quickly. She is pious, well-educated, and if she's touch naive about the dangerous world of Italian politics, well, she's a very fast learner. But right from her arrival in the city, she finds herself surrounded by plenty of lies, schemes, and unsettling rumours, and discovering that the only people she can trust are the three German waiting women left to her.
And the one person she can't trust at all is her husband, Alfonso. At once she discovers the most terrifying rumour of all -- that he murdered his first wife, the enchanting, pretty Lucrezia di Medici. Lucrezia had not been very old when she married Alfonso, and there are stories of her infidelity and lovers, none of which are spoken of too loudly. Quickly enough, Barbara is caught up in her own quest to find out the truth of Lucrezia's death, and to discover if the man she married is really a killer or not...
And then there is Lucrezia herself, giving her own narration as she remains between the earthly world and the hereafter, trapped as an shade -- unable to communicate with the living, but watching as Barbara -- whom she calls La Cavalla for her looks -- threads her way through the treachery around her.
Whew. This was one helluva novel. I was taken in from the first page and found myself unable to put the book down until I had finished it. The writing is top notch, filled with plenty of sights and sounds of a wealthy Italian court, with dances, hunts and feasts. One of my favourite sequences is set in themed entertainment with the signs of the Zodiac; clothing is given lush descriptions that are mouthwatering, and the emotional content runs high, but never over the top. Even botany gets to have a star turn with the hints of dangerous herbs, the scent of apricots and cherry blossoms.
What I really enjoyed are the characters. There is Barbara, of course, solemn, restrained and not without a few faults of her own. Alfonso with his inability to trust anybody, and the desire to control what is around him -- and even with these flaws, I liked him! Fra Pandolfo, with his artistic talents, and knowing just a bit too much about the women was another interesting character. And finally, there is Lucrezia, who is clearly trouble, but also provides a terrific viewpoint on the story, and of course, her ultimate fate.
The other great touch to this one is that everyone is behaving as they should for the time, and everyone has reasons for doing what they do. I love it when the author does this -- it gives another layer to the story, and helps to convince me that I am in the time and place of the novel. All too often, a writer will just have flimsy secondary characters that do little to add to the overall plot, but not here -- you should be paying attention to what's going on in this one, as a slight mention in a conversation can hold a clue to the overall story.
Finally, there are the touches of colour that the author blends in, from the two puppies that Barbara receives as a gift -- a wonderful touch! -- the music and dances that are being played, mentions of books and artists and politics beyond the city walls -- all of which are thoroughly unnecessary to the story, but it is these that move a novel into the place where the story envelops the reader, and goes a long way in making the story enjoyable.
There is an author's note, a question and answer session, a guide for reader's groups, maps, genealogical tables showing the links between the various characters, and a reading list for further exploration of the Italian renaissance. For those who read Murder of a Medici Princess by Caroline Murphy will find some interesting links to the rest of the story, and a few hints about Lucrezia.
All in all, this was a terrific read. I enjoyed myself immensely, and hope to see more of Elizabeth Loupas work in the future -- I certainly intend to pick up her next novel! Very much recommended, five stars overall.
Other books by Elizabeth Loupas:
The Flower Reader
Many, many thanks to Stef the CL in books for being so kind in getting this listed for me.
The Second Duchess
2011; New American Library, Penguin Group USA