Nearly two years ago I read The Second Duchess by Elizabeth Loupas, a fascinating novel set in Renaissance Italy which told the story of Barbara of Austria, the second wife of Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara. In The Red Lily Crown we revisit the same time period, but this time we are in Florence, where Barbara’s sister, Giovanna of Austria, is married to Francesco de’ Medici, a member of the ruling Florentine family. The novel opens in 1574 when Grand Duke Cosimo de’ Medici is about to die and his son Francesco is preparing to inherit the red lily crown of Tuscany.
Fifteen-year-old Chiara Nerini is the orphaned daughter of a bookseller and alchemist. Desperate for money to support her grandmother and little sisters, Chiara attempts to sell some of her father’s old equipment to Francesco, who is also known to have an obsession with alchemy. However, Chiara gets more than she bargained for when she finds herself being initiated as Francesco’s soror mystica, the female partner believed to be necessary for the creation of the legendary Philosopher’s Stone. Her new role brings her into the heart of the Medici household where she witnesses first-hand the corruption, intrigue and danger of Francesco’s court.
I loved The Red Lily Crown. I wasn’t sure about it at first, because books about alchemy tend not to appeal to me, but actually the alchemy was only one part of the story. What I found much more interesting was the wonderful portrayal of the Medici court and the people Chiara meets during her time there. Francesco de’ Medici himself is the perfect villain: coldly intellectual, clever and calculating, and with a terrifying knowledge of poisons. His only weakness appears to be his love for his Venetian mistress, Bianca Cappello – although their relationship is not a healthy one. Bianca is as scheming and ruthless as Francesco himself but she is also another victim of his cruelty and can only truly please him when pretending to be something she is not.
Chiara does make some friends too and becomes close to Francesco’s poor wife, the Grand Duchess Giovanna, who has been unable to provide her husband with the healthy male heir he so badly wants. There’s also the possibility of romance for Chiara with a mysterious English alchemist known as Ruanno, but knowing little about him and his previous life in Cornwall, she must decide whether or not he can be trusted. As for Chiara herself, I found that, as with Barbara in The Second Duchess, our heroine is both a strong woman and one whose actions and attitudes are believable in the context of the time period.
All of these characters have their role to play in a fast-moving plot packed with murder, magic, power struggles and poisonings. The setting is a great one too. The Medici palaces, the Nerini bookshop and the streets and squares of sixteenth century Florence are all vividly described – and there are some particularly memorable scenes set in the Grand Duke’s labyrinth in the Boboli Gardens. Not everything that happens in the story is entirely accurate, but Elizabeth Loupas explains in her author’s note what is true and what is fictional. Of course, there is a lot that we still don’t know for sure about the Medici, which leaves plenty of scope for an author to use his or her imagination.
I think I liked The Second Duchess slightly more than this one, but both books I’ve read by Loupas are excellent. I need to get hold of a copy of her other novel, The Flower Reader, as soon as I can!