Court of Wolves by Robyn Young

Robyn Young’s New World Rising series got off to a promising start in 2016 with Sons of the Blood and now it continues with the second novel, Court of Wolves. I would recommend beginning with the first book if you can as the story is very complex and I’m not sure how easy it would be to follow if you were to jump straight into this one. For the rest of this review, I will assume that you have either already read Sons of the Blood or don’t mind coming across one or two spoilers here.

Court of Wolves begins in 1486 with Jack Wynter arriving in Florence where he plans to seek an audience with Lorenzo de’ Medici. He has reason to believe that Lorenzo will be able to answer some of his questions regarding his father, Sir Thomas Vaughan, who was executed during the recent Wars of the Roses in England. He is also hoping for help in locating his old friend, the priest Amaury de la Croix, who has been taken captive and may be hidden somewhere in the city. As ruler of Florence, however, Lorenzo already has enough worries of his own with his power coming under threat from a secret society known as the Court of Wolves. If Jack can infiltrate the society and report back to Lorenzo, then maybe Lorenzo will help him.

Before he died, Sir Thomas Vaughan had entrusted Jack with a map hinting at undiscovered lands and new sea routes. This map has been stolen by Jack’s half-brother, Harry Vaughan, and is now in the possession of the newly crowned Henry VII. If these lands really exist, then Henry wants England to benefit from discovering them – but with the sailor Christopher Columbus seeking funding from Queen Isabella of Spain to finance his own voyage of exploration, Henry fears that the Spanish could get there first. He sends Harry Vaughan to Isabella’s court to find out what is happening and to ensure that Columbus never sets sail, but once there, Harry becomes drawn into Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand’s war in Granada.

Court of Wolves is set during a fascinating period in Europe’s history and the chapters alternate between Jack in Florence and Harry in Spain. There’s a sense that the world is changing and looking towards the future, with England, Spain, the Italian city states and others all searching for new opportunities to grow, expand and trade. Jack’s sections of the book were my favourites, partly because Jack is our hero while Harry is more of a villain, but also because I loved the descriptions of Florence and the Medici court – always a wonderful setting! I wasn’t very keen on the secret society storyline, but it was only one aspect of the novel and there were plenty of other things to enjoy.

The Harry chapters were interesting too, especially as I haven’t read about Isabella and Ferdinand’s Granada War in as much detail as this before. The war was a series of campaigns by the Spanish monarchs aimed at taking control of Granada, the last remaining Islamic stronghold in Spain, and Harry is at the heart of the action, present at the bombardment of Loja and the siege of Malaga. I can’t say that I liked Harry any more than I did in the first book, but I did care about what happened to him; even in another country, hundreds of miles from England, he seems to be very much under the control of Henry VII and is starting to face the consequences of his earlier actions during the reign of Richard III as well.

Although Jack and Harry are having separate adventures in this novel, there are still some links between them and no doubt their paths will cross again in the future. I haven’t seen any news on a third book yet, but I’m sure there will be one as the final chapter sets everything up perfectly for a continuation of the story.

Thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Crimson and Bone by Marina Fiorato

It’s January 1853 and seventeen-year-old Annie Stride is standing on Waterloo Bridge looking down at the River Thames, contemplating suicide. Having grown up in the East End of London as part of a large and impoverished family, Annie has drifted into a life of prostitution. Her only friend, Mary Jane, drowned in the Thames the previous year and now, pregnant and homeless, Annie has decided she has no choice but to do the same. Just as she gets ready to jump from the bridge, she is rescued at the last minute by a handsome young man who introduces himself as Francis Maybrick Gill.

Francis is a talented Pre-Raphaelite artist who is planning a new series of paintings on the subject of the ‘Fallen Woman’ – and he wants Annie to be his model. And so Annie, who had been only moments away from death, finds herself living with Francis in his large and luxurious Gower Street home, posing for portraits of Eve, Rahab and Jezebel. As well as using Annie as his muse, Francis also takes steps to improve her mind, to correct her East End speech and to help her with her reading and writing. She has no idea why he is taking so much interest in her, but she is so grateful she doesn’t care – until late one night two visitors come to call and Annie begins to wonder whether Francis Maybrick Gill is really the man she thought he was.

Crimson and Bone, Marina Fiorato’s latest novel, is divided into three parts and everything I have described above happens in the first part alone. The action also moves away from London for a while to Florence and Venice; Fiorato, who is half-Venetian herself, always writes beautifully about Italy and we are given some lovely, vivid descriptions of the country. The author’s love of art also shines through, with lots of information on the Pre-Raphaelite approach to art, exhibitions at the Royal Academy, the symbolism in the paintings for which Annie models, and, through the character of a mysterious ‘rainbow man’, the origins of the paints and pigments Francis uses.

From the beginning, the reader is kept in the dark as to Francis’s motives. What are his true plans for Annie? Does he really just want to paint her or does he have some other reason for his sudden interest in her? And what is the significance of his obsession with white camellias? A series of diary entries written by Annie’s friend Mary Jane appear at the start of each chapter which eventually shed some light on things, while also raising more questions along the way. It’s obvious that something is not quite right with the whole situation, but we don’t know what or why and the tension builds slowly throughout the novel.

However, there are a few inaccuracies and anachronisms which do spoil the book somewhat – for example, Annie tries to improve her speech by listening to gramophone records (several decades before they would have been available) and is taken to the theatre to see performances of Pygmalion (not staged until 1913) and Adelaide Neilson in Measure for Measure (more than twenty years too early). Admittedly, not knowing anything about Adelaide Neilson, I wasn’t aware of the third one until someone else pointed it out in their review, but it makes me wonder what else I might have been too caught up in the story to notice.

And the fact that I became so caught up in the story and the atmosphere – and that I cared about what happened to Annie – meant that I did enjoy this novel overall, despite its flaws.

This is book 15/20 of my 20 Books of Summer challenge.

The Red Lily Crown by Elizabeth Loupas

The Red Lily Crown 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!

Romola by George Eliot

Romola I’ll admit that I didn’t feel very enthusiastic about starting to read Romola. I had added it to my Classics Club list because I loved Middlemarch and because the Italian Renaissance setting sounded appealing to me. Then I came across some reviews that said it was very difficult to read, overly detailed and boring, and I began to wonder what I had let myself in for. Luckily, now that I’ve read the book, I can say that none of these things were big problems for me. Yes, it was challenging, and yes, the amount of historical and political detail was overwhelming, but none of that mattered because I was so caught up in the story and the lives of the characters.

Romola is set in Florence in the final years of the 15th century and I wonder if this could be one of the reasons it’s not more widely read as it isn’t what you would typically expect from a Victorian novel. There’s no doubt that Eliot must have thoroughly researched the setting and the historical background, although it sometimes seemed that she had been determined to include every little fact and detail she uncovered during that research. Apparently Anthony Trollope wrote to Eliot after reading the first instalment and praised her for her descriptions of Florence, ‘wonderful in their energy and in their accuracy’, but warned her not to ‘fire too much over the heads of your readers’. Well, a lot of it did go over my head, and although I loved the book overall I won’t pretend that I understood everything I read.

The title character, Romola, is the daughter of an elderly scholar, Bardo de’ Bardi. Romola’s brother has left home to join the church and Romola is doing her best to take his place in helping their father with his classical studies. This work does not really interest Romola, however, so when they are introduced to a young man called Tito Melema who agrees to become Bardi’s assistant, this seems to be the perfect solution.

Tito, a Greek scholar, has just arrived in Florence after surviving a shipwreck and is looking forward to building a new life and career for himself. When he learns that his adoptive father, Baldassarre, has been sold into slavery in Antioch and needs his assistance, Tito must decide whether to put his own comfort above his duty to his father. Meanwhile Romola is beginning to fall in love with Tito, but knows nothing of his relationship with Baldassarre – or of his entanglement with a pretty young Florentine girl called Tessa.

The story of Romola and Tito unfolds against the backdrop of a very important period in Florentine history. Piero de’ Medici has been driven from Florence as the French prepare to invade and religious fervour is sweeping through the city under the leadership of the Dominican preacher, Girolamo Savonarola. Savonarola is an important character in Romola – along with Niccolò Machiavelli he is one of several real historical figures to appear in the novel – and is portrayed here as a complex human being with both good points and bad.

The fictional characters are even more interesting than the historical ones; the villain in this novel is the equal of almost any in Victorian fiction. He is particularly fascinating because when we first meet him he doesn’t appear to be villainous at all; his character undergoes a slow descent into deceit and treachery so that I went from liking him to loathing him. Romola sometimes feels more like a typical virtuous and dutiful Victorian heroine than a 15th century one (she reminded me of Dorothea Brooke from Middlemarch) but I liked her and enjoyed watching her character develop.

I think how much you take away from Romola depends on how much effort you put in. You can look up every reference if you want to, or you can just be swept along by the story – like a lot of classics it works on more than one level. I certainly didn’t understand it all and I got very confused by the political intrigue towards the end of the book but as long as I could keep track of who was on which side, who was being betrayed and who was doing the betraying I was happy.

This hasn’t become a favourite classic but it’s one of the best I’ve read for a while. I was gripped by the plot, fascinated by the characters and loved the portrayal of Florence, its buildings, its art and culture and its people. Having only read Middlemarch, Silas Marner and now Romola so far, I’m looking forward to reading George Eliot’s other novels!

The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant

The Birth of Venus I love books set in Renaissance Italy but although Sarah Dunant has written three or four of them, this is the first one I’ve read. I had started to read her novel on the Borgias, Blood and Beauty, a year or two ago and struggled to get into it, so that put me off trying any of her other books for a while. Something keeps drawing me to Dunant’s books on the library shelf, though, so a few weeks ago I decided it was time to give her another try.

The Birth of Venus is not, as I’d originally expected, a novel based on the story behind the Botticelli painting of the same name. What the title does actually refer to could be debated, but it seems to me that it alludes to the ‘birth’ or awakening of the novel’s narrator as she falls in love for the first time. The name of the narrator is Alessandra Cecchi and she is the daughter of a prosperous Florentine cloth merchant.

At the beginning of the novel, Alessandra is not quite fifteen years old. Despite her quick brain and artistic talent, she has had to resign herself to the fact that, due to the conventions of 15th century society, she will have no option but to marry the man her parents have chosen for her. When her father returns from a business trip, bringing with him a young artist whom he has commissioned to paint the walls of the family chapel, Alessandra is fascinated. She is curious to see the painter’s work and to learn more about his methods, but she is even more intrigued by the painter himself. Who is this young man, this ‘orphan brought up in a monastery on the edge of the northern sea’?

As the story of Alessandra and the painter unfolds, so does the story of Florence. Beginning with the death of Lorenzo de’ Medici, the novel takes us through the subsequent disastrous reign of Piero de’ Medici, the rise to power of the Dominican friar Savonarola, and the growing threat of a French invasion. This is always a fascinating time and place to read about and I think Dunant does a particularly good job of bringing the setting to life, not just in describing the sights and sounds, but also in showing us how the mood of Florence changes as the city is gripped by Savonarola’s religious extremism.

For a thick book, this was quite a quick read, the sort where you become so swept along with the story you don’t realise how fast the pages are turning. My only problem was that I found Dunant’s decision to refer to the painter as ‘the painter’ throughout the entire book slightly annoying. I’m not quite sure why there really needed to be a mystery surrounding his identity. I felt that the lack of a name created a distance between the character and the reader – I expect this was probably intentional (maybe it wasn’t supposed to matter who he was; all that mattered was what he represented to Alessandra), but if so, it didn’t work for me.

While I can’t really say that I loved this book, I did enjoy it and am now happy to try Sarah Dunant’s other Renaissance Italy novels, In the Company of the Courtesan and Sacred Hearts (maybe I should even give Blood and Beauty another chance). When I finished The Birth of Venus I didn’t want to leave Medici Florence behind, so the next book I picked up was Romola by George Eliot, which is set in the same period and which I’m thoroughly enjoying.

Secrecy by Rupert Thomson

Secrecy Secrecy is set in 17th century Florence and tells the story of Gaetano Zumbo, a sculptor famous for creating gruesome wax models depicting the human body in various stages of decay. Zumbo (or Zummo, as he is usually referred to in the novel) arrives in Florence in 1691, having fled from his home in Sicily for reasons which are revealed later in the book. The Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo III de’ Medici, is an admirer of Zummo’s work and commissions a very special sculpture from him – one which must be kept a secret between the two men.

After settling into his new home, the House of Shells, and getting to know his landlady, her young daughter, and another lodger, a French acrobat, Zummo concentrates on creating the Grand Duke’s special wax model. But when he falls in love with the apothecary’s niece, Faustina, and makes an enemy of Stufa, a monk and advisor to the Grand Duke’s mother, Zummo’s life suddenly becomes a lot more complicated.

Gaetano Zumbo was a real person, although I didn’t know anything about him or his work before reading this book. If you’re curious and not too squeamish, you can find plenty of images online showing his various plague scenes, dismembered bodies and rotting corpses. Apparently some examples of his work are displayed in Florence’s Museum of Zoology and Natural History, but I have to admit I don’t have any desire to go and look at them as they sound a bit too grotesque for my liking!

There’s no doubt, though, that Zumbo is an unusual and intriguing subject for historical fiction. The setting is fascinating too. I don’t think I’ve ever read about this particular period of Italian history before and I enjoyed reading about Florence under the rule of Cosimo III – portrayed here as a corrupt and dangerous place. The novel has a dark, unsettling atmosphere and the theme of secrecy is woven into the complex plot in several different ways.

But the interesting protagonist and atmospheric setting were not quite enough to make me love Secrecy. I found the characters, even Zummo himself, difficult to fully connect with and never really managed to engage with any of them on an emotional level. I also thought the narrative style was slightly confusing as it was sometimes not immediately obvious when Zummo was dreaming or remembering something that had happened in his past.

Still, if you enjoy historical fiction set in Italy and are in the mood for something a little bit different, this book could be just what you’re looking for.

I received a copy of this book via NetGalley for review.

The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie

A More Diverse Universe I’ve never read anything by Salman Rushdie before and have always felt slightly intimidated by him, but when I was looking for something to read for the A More Diverse Universe blog tour (hosted by Aarti of Booklust) I came across this title on Aarti’s list of suggestions and thought it sounded intriguing.

The Enchantress of Florence is a very imaginative mixture of history and fantasy, with a plot that is almost impossible to describe – though I’ll do my best! The story begins in 16th century India when a mysterious yellow-haired stranger calling himself the Mogor dell’Amore arrives by bullock-cart at the court of the Emperor Akbar in Sikri. Claiming to be related to Akbar, he begins to tell the Emperor the story of the lost Mughal princess, Qara Köz, or Lady Black Eyes, who is captured and after a series of adventures ends up in Florence where she falls in love with the soldier Antonino Argalia. Qara Köz is the enchantress of the title, believed to have powers of sorcery, as well as great beauty, and the entire city of Florence becomes captivated by her presence. In a separate, but connected, storyline we also learn of Argalia’s childhood, growing up in Florence with his friends Ago Vespucci and Il Machia (Niccolò Machiavelli). Will Akbar believe the stories he is told and what effect will they have on the Emperor and his court?

The Enchantress of Florence There are lots of themes and ideas in The Enchantress of Florence and I’m sure I didn’t fully understand all of them. However, one of the main themes, to me, seems to be the power and the magic of storytelling. The novel is made up of lots of separate interlocking stories, not just the three main ones I’ve mentioned above. One character will begin to tell a story and then a character within that story will begin to tell another story and so on, until you almost begin to forget who the original storyteller was and who the listeners are. These stories may or may not be true and all of them are rich in magical realism – we meet the emperor’s favourite wife Jodha, for example, who is imaginary but also seems to have a life of her own; a slave girl who has become a ‘Memory Palace’ (or a device to aid the memory); and an artist hiding inside one of his own paintings.

The fantasy elements and the abundance of princesses, emperors, giants and witches gives the book a fairy tale feel (I was reminded of The Arabian Nights) and there are beautiful, lavish descriptions of both Mughal India and Renaissance Florence, two settings which are very different but also surprisingly alike. I did enjoy this book, especially the sections set in India, and I thought it was beautifully written, but I did find it very complicated and difficult to follow and I think I would probably have needed to read it twice to be able to really appreciate it. People often talk about books having multiple layers, and that’s usually a good thing, but this one has so many layers I was a bit overwhelmed!

I won’t be immediately rushing out to buy the rest of Salman Rushdie’s books but I’m glad I chose to read this one – it was a challenge, but worth the effort, I think.