Beginning in 1492, Wolves in Winter is the story of Mura Benito, the young daughter of a bookseller from Toledo. Even at the age of five, Mura knows she is not like other children. With her mixture of Moorish blood (from her father) and Nordic blood (from her mother) and her pale, androgynous appearance, she has always looked different. She has also grown up listening to her father read to her from his books and possesses a wealth of arcane knowledge which would be unknown to most little girls.
When Mura’s father is arrested by the Inquisition, he leaves his daughter in the care of his friend, Adara, but Mura is eventually sold into slavery and finds herself taken to Florence where she becomes a maid in the household of Piero de’ Medici. Here she continues her education under the eye of the great scholar Marsilio Ficino, learns the arts of healing and fortune telling with the help of the wise woman Margherita, and makes a special friend called Cecco who shows her the sights of Florence. However, Mura’s life is soon to undergo another big change: the downfall of the Medici, the rise to power of the monk Savonarola and the threat of war with the French mean that these are uncertain times in Florence. Fate will take Mura next to Forli and the home of the Countess Caterina Sforza, known as the Lioness of the Romagna.
I picked up Wolves in Winter while browsing the shelves in the library and was intrigued by the promise on the cover of “poison, alchemy and intrigue in the court of the Medici”. I had never heard of either the book or the author but thought I would take it home and give it a try. I did enjoy some aspects of the novel – it’s an entertaining, imaginative story set against a fascinating historical backdrop – but it wasn’t as good as it could have been or as I’d hoped it might be. The positives first: I loved the atmosphere and the richness of Lisa Hilton’s writing (I particularly liked the way she used colour in her descriptions) and the various settings were vividly described. In 350 pages we move from a Spanish bookshop to a Florentine palazzo, from the camp of a travelling circus troupe to a castle under siege!
It was the fictional story of Mura that I had a few problems with. First, she narrates in the first person and although she does age over the course of the novel, she never feels significantly different from the child she is at the beginning. Then there are the supernatural elements of the book – for example, Mura believes she has the ability to communicate with wolves and that she has the gift of the Sight. I just don’t feel that this added very much to the story. Renaissance Italy is always an interesting setting anyway and you would expect any novel featuring both the Medici and the Borgias to be full of intrigue and drama. Add Caterina Sforza, a fascinating character (and one I haven’t read about until now), and there should already have been enough material here to tell a compelling story without the addition of the ‘magical’ elements.
Mura herself is an unusual heroine; I liked her, but I think her strangeness made her a difficult character to fully engage with. I did appreciate, though, that Lisa Hilton was trying to do something a bit different here and that this was not supposed to be your average heroine or your average historical novel! Another way in which Mura’s story is unusual is that it doesn’t involve a lot of romance – she does have a romantic interest but it only forms one small part of the novel. There’s a good reason for this, which I won’t explain here but which will be revealed if you read the book.
Wolves in Winter was an enjoyable, easy read but it lacked the sort of depth I prefer in historical fiction. This edition of the book includes a preview of the author’s next novel, The Stolen Queen, which is about Isabelle of Angoulême. It looks promising but I’m not sure I’ll be reading any more by this author.