Keeper of the King’s Secrets by Michelle Diener

Keeper of the King's Secrets by Michelle Diener(Cover picture courtesy of Michelle Diener’s site.)

A priceless jewel. A royal court rife with intrigue. A secret deal, where the price of truth could come too high . . .

The personal artist to King Henry Tudor, Susanna Horenbout is sought by the queen and ladies of the court for her delicate, skilled portraits. But now someone from her past is pulling her into a duplicitous game where the consequence of failure is war. Soon, Susanna and her betrothed, the King’s most dangerous courtier, are unraveling a plot that would shatter Europe. And at the heart of it is a magnificent missing diamond. . . .

With John Parker at her side, Susanna searches for the diamond and those responsible for its theft, their every step dogged by a lethal assassin. Finding the truth means plunging into the heart of the court’s most bitter infighting, surviving the harrowing labyrinth of Fleet Prisonand then coming face-to-face with the most dangerous enemy of all.

[Full disclosure: I received a free print copy from Michelle Diener in exchange for an honest review.]

After the awesome novel that was In a Treacherous Court, I decided that I desperately needed to read the rest of Susanna Horenbout and John Parker’s story.  After all, there’s still plenty of intrigue coming up in the court of Henry VIII at this point in time.

Michelle Diener didn’t disappoint with this sequel.  Compared to her debut novel (which was good) this one is even better simply because of the quality of the writing.  She slows down a little to describe things like how Susanna illuminates manuscripts but not too much so that the plot is any slower than the first book.  The extra descriptions are relevant and on the whole just make the story better, not slower.

The characters are, as always, fantastic.  I enjoyed seeing Susanna and John working together to find the Mirror of Naples because you can really feel their love for each other.  They work well together as a team and even though they don’t always agree on things their love shines through and they’re able to reconcile.  Compared to a lot of YA I’ve been reading lately, this adult historical fiction novel was a breath of fresh air because of the stable, loving relationship Susanna and John have.

One thing I was surprised at was how fleshed out King Henry VIII was in this book.  We get to see a lot more of him this time around and you kind of see both the good and bad sides of his character.  I don’t want to give too much away, but I’m sure I’m not the only Jean fan in this book because he truly is a fascinating character.

As with the previous novel in the series Keeper of the King’s Secrets kept me guessing right up until the very end.  It was well researched and well plotted; you really couldn’t ask for more in historical fiction.  There’s also a very interesting little cliffhanger at the end that will make you very, very eager to get your hands on the next book In Defense of the Queen.

I give this book 5/5 stars.

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Mistress of Rome by Kate Quinn

Mistress of Rome by Kate Quinn(Cover picture courtesy of Kate Quinn’s website.)

An exciting debut: a vivid, richly imagined saga of ancient Rome from a masterful new voice in historical fiction

Thea is a slave girl from Judaea, passionate, musical, and guarded. Purchased as a toy for the spiteful heiress Lepida Pollia, Thea will become her mistress’s rival for the love of Arius the Barbarian, Rome’s newest and most savage gladiator. His love brings Thea the first happiness of her life-that is quickly ended when a jealous Lepida tears them apart.

As Lepida goes on to wreak havoc in the life of a new husband and his family, Thea remakes herself as a polished singer for Rome’s aristocrats. Unwittingly, she attracts another admirer in the charismatic Emperor of Rome. But Domitian’s games have a darker side, and Thea finds herself fighting for both soul and sanity. Many have tried to destroy the Emperor: a vengeful gladiator, an upright senator, a tormented soldier, a Vestal Virgin. But in the end, the life of the brilliant and paranoid Domitian lies in the hands of one woman: the Emperor’s mistress.

After reading and enjoying Kate Quinn’s latest series, the Borgia Chronicles, I decided to go back and try some of her earlier works.  I mean, she wrote about Renaissance Rome well, so why not ancient Rome too?

As it turns out, Kate Quinn is comfortable in either era.  I was surprised the most by her writing, which makes you feel like you’re there.  You can hear the roaring cheers in the arena, smell the stench of Rome in summer, etc.  Her writing isn’t as polished in her debut as it is in her other books but I still really enjoyed it and she is still very good.

I like how she wound history and her own story seamlessly into a coherent narrative.  Of course there’s no evidence for some of the stuff that happens in the novel but Kate Quinn acknowledges that in her Historical Note and explains her reasons for adding or leaving out certain things.  In the end, she gets the feeling of the period across to the reader and has obviously done her research about the details of ancient Roman daily life.  That’s what’s really important to me with historical fiction.

Her characters are most definitely memorable, Thea especially.  I’m a sucker for the person who (sometimes unintentionally) goes from the lowest position possible in society to being the most highly coveted society figure as Thea does.  Still, being the Emperor Domitian’s mistress isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and suddenly all of the separate paths of the narrative start to collide.  It was interesting to see how each person Kate Quinn gave readers an insight into took part in the plot, even Lepida (in her own way).  On the surface some of these characters are simply archetypes but Kate Quinn gives them so much depth that you barely notice.

This is a really good novel considering it was a debut novel and I can’t wait to read the rest of Kate Quinn’s Rome series.

I give this book 4.5/5 stars.

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The Lion and the Rose by Kate Quinn

The Lion and the Rose by Kate Quinn(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)

As the cherished concubine of the Borgia Pope Alexander VI, Giulia Farnese has Rome at her feet. But after narrowly escaping a sinister captor, she realizes that the danger she faces is far from over—and now, it threatens from within. The Holy City of Rome is still under Alexander’s thrall, but enemies of the Borgias are starting to circle. In need of trusted allies, Giulia turns to her sharp-tongued bodyguard, Leonello, and her fiery cook and confidante, Carmelina.

Caught in the deadly world of the Renaissance’s most notorious family, Giulia, Leonello, and Carmelina must decide if they will flee the dangerous dream of power. But as the shadows of murder and corruption rise through the Vatican, they must learn who to trust when every face wears a mask . . .

I had my doubts about The Lion and the Rose but in the end it exceeded my expectations.  Kate Quinn captures a time of change and uncertainty perfectly while having her beloved characters navigate through the vicious politics of Rome.

Kate Quinn’s characters are great.  Giulia is finally a mature woman who starts to realize that maybe her beloved Pope isn’t all that he seems to be.  His personality is changing and Giulia now has the maturity and insight to see and acknowledge some of his failings as a person.  I don’t want to add in too many spoilers, but this new knowledge drastically changes their relationship as well as both parties involved.  Leonello was the character that surprised me the most in this book, however.  He’s finally trying to be just a little bit nicer to everyone but he still has that biting wit that makes me love him.  Where his character goes toward the end of the book was a total shock but in hindsight I should have seen it coming.  Carmelina also has quite the interesting character arc, but I was definitely more interested in Giulia’s and Leonello’s.

I can’t vouch for the historical accuracy of this novel because my knowledge of the era is woefully inadequate, but Kate Quinn included a nice historical note talking about the very few things she did change.  She seamlessly wove history and invention together to tell a great story while remaining true to the tiny details and broader strokes of the period.  For example, all of the recipes mentioned in the book are authentic as well as the religious unrest in Florence.  This is how historical fiction should be written.

By most standards the plot is not fast-paced but this is more of a character driven novel.  There are still some very surprising plot twists, particularly the ones involving Leonello, so you’ll never be bored.  And of course Kate Quinn’s writing style is excellent, as always.  Historical fiction doesn’t get much better than this.

I give this book 5/5 stars.

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The Memoirs of Cleopatra by Margaret George

The Memoirs of Cleopatra(Cover picture courtesy of Margaret George’s site.)

Bestselling novelist Margaret George brings to life the glittering kingdom of Cleopatra, Queen of the Nile, in this luch, sweeping, and richly detailed saga. Told in Cleopatra’s own voice, this is a mesmerizing tale of ambition, passion, and betrayl, which begins when the twenty-year-old queen seeks out the most powerful man in the world, Julius Caesar, and does not end until, having survived the assassination of Caesar and the defeat of the second man she loves, Marc Antony, she plots her own death rather than be paraded in triumph through the streets of Rome.

This really is a monster of a book.  Compared to some books I’ve read it’s not that long, only 964 pages, but the pages are huge and that’s why it took me months to finish this book.  But in the end it was completely worth it, which is why I chose it for my 500th book review!

The thing I liked most about The Memoirs of Cleopatra wasn’t even the characters; it was the writing itself.  Margaret George has a beautiful, captivating style that brings history to life.  I could smell the slums of Rome, feel the hot Egyptian air on my skin in the temple of Philae and could even smell the perfumes and the food.  Her descriptions appeal to all five of the reader’s senses but she never really belabors the point.  She finds that perfect balance between Cleopatra’s own introspective nature and describing the scene around her for readers.

The characters were, of course, fantastic.  Cleopatra is far from perfect, believe me, but Margaret George paints her not as a goddess, man-eater or ruthless despot, but rather as a human being.  She loves, fights, rages, cries, smiles, laughs and does all of the things that normal human beings would do, especially under the amount of pressure she had throughout her whole life.  Cleopatra comes off as an amazing character and this is definitely one of the more memorable portrayals of the last Pharaoh that I’ve ever read (and I’ve read a lot).

Julius Caesar was pretty much as I expected but Marc Antony was interesting.  In this version it’s clear that he does struggle from some depression and feelings of inadequacy as Cleopatra pushes him to do the things she’s always wanted to do.  It’s like she’s trying to live through him as a man but Antony just can’t measure up, causing him to turn to alcohol.  This type of Antony has been portrayed before, but never quite as sympathetically as Margaret George portrays him.  In the end, despite his weaknesses, I felt sad when he took his own life.

Margaret George has very obviously done her research here.  The historical details are accurate as well as the broader strokes of the events of the time.  Of course she’s had to fill in some gaps with her own imagination, but she sticks as close to reality as possible.  Honestly, you’d be hard-pressed to find a novel that is better researched but so well written.

Basically, this was worth the months of reading and I couldn’t have picked a better book for my 500th review milestone.  If you like Cleopatra or ancient Egypt in general I can’t recommend this one enough.

I give this book 5/5 stars.

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The Secret Eleanor by Cecelia Holland

The Secret Eleanor by Cecelia Holland(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)

1151: As Duchess of Aquitaine, Eleanor grew up knowing what it was to be regarded for herself and not for her husband’s title. Now, as wife to Louis VII and Queen of France, she has found herself unsatisfied with reflected glory-and feeling constantly under threat, even though she outranks every woman in Paris.

Then, standing beside her much older husband in the course of a court ceremony, Eleanor locks eyes with a man-hardly more than a boy, really- across the throne room, and knows that her world has changed irrevocably…

He is Henry D’Anjou, eldest son of the Duke of Anjou, and he is in line, somewhat tenuously, for the British throne. She meets him in secret. She has a gift for secrecy, for she is watched like a prisoner by spies even among her own women. She is determined that Louis must set her free. Employing deception and disguise, seduction and manipulation, Eleanor is determined to find her way to power-and make her mark on history.

How do you turn a woman who left an incredible mark on history by daring to choose her husband, who set a new standard for women in power into a shallow, conniving, backstabbing, whiny little girl?  After reading The Secret Eleanor I’m still not too sure, but Cecelia Holland somehow managed it.

As you’ve probably guessed, this book was a complete letdown.  I expected to admire Eleanor because in history she really was a strong, intelligent and cunning woman.  I didn’t expect the whiny, self-centred creature that Cecelia Holland portrayed her as.  How could this woman have done half of the things she did in real life if she was as Holland imagines her?  Answer: she couldn’t and that’s why her portrayal falls flat.

There has to be a strong suspension of disbelief to finish this book because we learn that Eleanor while Eleanor was pregnant with Henry’s child her sister Petronilla impersonated her.  This I highly doubt.  Sisters can look alike, it’s true, but very rarely can someone truly copy another person’s mannerisms and vocal patterns.  Even when they’re close sisters.  Honestly, if this scenario had been true, someone would have noticed and outed the whole conspiracy.  As it was, everyone within Eleanor’s inner circle knew so it’s pretty safe to say that in real life, someone would have squealed.

I could look past the implausible scenario if the rest of the book was well written, but it was not.  The plot seems to jump all over the place as we follow the different characters through their journeys.  Claire, the young maidservant, randomly seems to get quite a bit of page time in the last third of the book.  Eleanor all but disappears from the narrative as Petronilla takes over her role.  Sometimes there seems to be neither rhyme nor reason as to why Cecelia Holland changed points of view other than in a desperate attempt to move the plot along.  It didn’t work.

Basically, if you’re even vaguely interested in Eleanor of Aquitaine this book is not for you.  I honestly wish I hadn’t wasted my money on it.

I give this book 1/5 stars.

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