Category: Historical Fiction

Search for the Golden Serpent by Luciana Cavallaro

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000037_00044](Cover picture courtesy of the author.)

It’s not where he appears, it’s when.
What if you’re born during another time grew up in the 21st century and thrust back into the past? Confused? So is architect, Evan Chronis.
Evan drawn by screams ventures out to his backyard and sees blood trickling down the limestone steps. He steps off the veranda and finds himself in the days of great and marvellous power, a time when the gods ruled the universe.
To return to the 21st century life he longs for, he must risk his life in search of powerful, treasured relics older than the Holy Grail. But what he finds might be more than he expected.
Will Evan find the relics and return home or will he remain forever stuck in a world so different from his own?

[Full disclosure: I was contacted by the author and provided with an ebook in exchange for an honest review.]

I’ve read quite a few of Luciana Cavallaro’s previous works so I was pretty excited to read Search for the Golden Serpent.  The only problem was that she had previously only published short stories and I was a little worried about how she would transition into longer works like this one.  After all, a 354 page novel is not the same as a 40 page short story.  Still, I was more than ready to give her a chance.  In the end, I honestly didn’t even need to worry in the slightest.  Her debut novel is just as good as her previous short stories, even better in many ways.

Evan Chronis is a very memorable character.  In the modern world he’s a successful architect who absolutely adores his job.  Then Zeus decides that he’s needed back in his real time: the early years of ancient Greece, after the sinking of the mythical Atlantis.  I don’t know about you but being immersed in the modern world and suddenly being contacted by a god who drops you in the ancient world would be a little jarring to say the least.  Evan, understandably, really doesn’t handle it all that well in the beginning until he begins to speak the language and make friends.  But poor Evan, called Evandros in his own time, doesn’t ever really get a break: Zeus and the other gods have sent him on a mission to recover powerful artifacts to prevent their eventual fading into historical fiction in the modern era.

He really does have a remarkable physical journey but also a mental and emotional one.  When he goes back to the past he fights it tooth and nail, desperate to go back to our own time.  However, when he realizes that his only option is to recover the artifacts he throws himself fully into the task.  In the beginning Evan is also a little arrogant in his own way, utterly convinced that the people in the past are more primitive and somewhat inferior.  Yet through his journeys he tends to appreciate them a little more and realize that many ancient cultures had more accomplishments than just their fantastic architecture.  And when he befriends Phameas on the ship that rescues him and is forced to learn an entirely new language in a very short time, it sort of humbles him.  He learns a lot on his journey and it was really interesting to see how his character changed throughout the course of the novel.

One of the things I absolutely loved is that Luciana Cavallaro has clearly done her research.  She so vividly describes past cultures that we very rarely read about in historical fiction that you feel like you’re really there.  From the streets of Carthage to the temples of ancient Egypt and a ship from Phoenicia, you will feel totally immersed in the world of the ancient Mediterranean.  It’s brilliant because it shows old empires like Egypt and contrasts it with the rising might of the Greeks.  It’s so rare in historical fiction to get a more international picture like this one and it’s a real treat to have it handled by an author with such a passion for history.  Obviously Evan and his group are fiction but many of the main events and where they occurred are real.  It’s absolutely fascinating and I’m not really doing it justice with this description.

The plot begins a little slow but that’s quickly remedied as Evan is contacted by Zeus and is forced to become Evandros, the version of himself that was raised solely in the past instead of just being born in it.  I suppose some people will find Evan’s period on the Phoenician ship a little boring but I really enjoyed his adjustment period as he learned more about the world he was suddenly dropped into.  It helps that Evan’s point of view is interspersed with scenes with the gods, who are more than a little worried about their fate as well as scenes with the rest of his crew, who are understandably wondering where the Evandros they knew and loved has gone and whether or not he’s even alive.  By the time I got to the end of the book I was on the edge of my seat, anxious to see what would happen next. The ending was a cliffhanger but it was a good place to stop and it was a fairly satisfying end.  It made me want more but I had fewer questions than when I started out.

Luciana Cavallaro really has a gift for making you care about her characters and their fates even if you don’t necessarily think they’re sympathetic or likeable.  That much was obvious from her short stories but she really transitioned into a longer work really well.  The beautiful descriptions that were the hallmark of her short stories for me are expanded and add so much more to the richness of the world she brought to life.  So if you loved Cavallaro’s short stories, you will also love Search for the Golden Serpent.  And if you’re never ready anything by her, you need to pick up one of her short stories and/or pre-order a copy of her debut novel.  You certainly won’t regret it.

I give this book 5/5 stars.

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The Witch of Painted Sorrows by M. J. Rose

The Witch of Painted Sorrows by M. J. Rose(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)

Possession. Power. Passion. New York Times bestselling novelist M. J. Rose creates her most provocative and magical spellbinder yet in this gothic novel set against the lavish spectacle of 1890s Belle Époque Paris.

Sandrine Salome flees New York for her grandmother’s Paris mansion to escape her dangerous husband, but what she finds there is even more menacing. The house, famous for its lavish art collection and elegant salons, is mysteriously closed up. Although her grandmother insists it’s dangerous for Sandrine to visit, she defies her and meets Julien Duplessi, a mesmerizing young architect. Together they explore the hidden night world of Paris, the forbidden occult underground and Sandrine’s deepest desires.

Among the bohemians and the demi-monde, Sandrine discovers her erotic nature as a lover and painter. Then darker influences threaten—her cold and cruel husband is tracking her down and something sinister is taking hold, changing Sandrine, altering her. She’s become possessed by La Lune: A witch, a legend, and a sixteenth-century courtesan, who opens up her life to a darkness that may become a gift or a curse.

This is Sandrine’s “wild night of the soul,” her odyssey in the magnificent city of Paris, of art, love, and witchery.

[Full disclosure: I requested and received a free ebook as part of the blog tour in exchange for an honest review.]

A while back in May 2014 I was on the blog tour for M. J. Rose’s book The Collector of Dying Breaths and I absolutely loved it.  The characters were fantastic, the writing was so beautiful it was hard to describe and the plot twisted and turned so much that I just had to keep reading.  Needless to say I had high expectations for this stand-alone novel The Witch of Painted Sorrows.

My high expectations were absolutely exceeded and this book is one of the rare cases where the cover is just as good as the actual content.  It gives away the atmosphere of the novel just wonderfully: beautiful but haunting.  It’s so rare that an author can keep that atmosphere up throughout the novel even if it’s only in the background during some scenes but M. J. Rose certainly managed to do that.  Throughout Sandrine’s journey we experience her hopes, her joys and her sorrows as her life in Paris goes from fairly regular to extraordinary.  I’m not generally a fan of Gothic novels in part because few authors can keep up the haunted atmosphere but Rose definitely did.  Through her beautifully descriptive writing I experienced everything from the bustling streets of Paris to the hidden corners of an ancient and seemingly cursed house.  I know I keep using the word beautiful to describe her writing, but there really is no other word that does it justice.  She’s able to evoke complex emotions in the simplest of phrases, to appeal to all your senses at once, particularly smell.  I can honestly say that I’ve never had an author describe things so vividly before.

Sandrine is a wonderful main character.  At first she’s a lonely woman escaping a loveless marriage and the knowledge that her father’s death was the fault of her hated husband.  She’s lived a life of immense privilege but has never really known happiness until she comes to Paris to reconnect with her grandmother, a famous courtesan.  When she meets her grandmother’s architect Julien and discovers that her grandmother intends to turn the Maison de la Lune into a mere tourist attraction, things start to get weird.  First she discovers that she’s actually attracted to Julien and possibly even loves him, something she’s never experienced before in her entire life.  Second, her grandmother starts acting weird when she learns that Sandrine is spending her time at La Lune’s house and tries to nip her growing attraction to Julien in the bud.  Then, when Sandrine discovers the secret room in the maison, the tension starts to ratchet up in ever increasing notches.  Throughout the novel Sandrine really grows as a character but when she discovers the secret of La Lune she really comes into her own, bucking society’s expectations of her spectacularly and asserting her independence.  But there’s of course a more sinister reason behind Sandrine’s personality change that starts to spiral out of control as Sandrine spends more and more time in the secret room with La Lune’s paintings.

Simply put, The Witch of Painted Sorrows is a book you’ll never really be able to put down until you finish it.  Not only does M. J. Rose know how to keep up the Gothic novel atmosphere, she also knows how to slowly introduce tension and gradually increase it until you’re unable to put the book down.  You’ll think to yourself: “one more chapter, just one more” and then it’ll be three in the morning and you’re just finishing the book twenty chapters later.  It’s incredibly hard to put down not only because her pacing is good and the suspense is constant but because the plot twists and turns quite spectacularly.  Just when you think you know what’s going to happen in the end, Rose puts another twist in the plot.  By the last few chapters I was fairly certain what the ending was going to be but the rest of the book was fairly unpredictable and I have to give her credit for that.

Basically, this novel will suck you in and not let you go until you’ve finished.  You’ll be drawn in by the suspense and the beautiful writing but it’s the fantastic and dynamic characters that will keep you reading on into the early morning hours.  It’s hard not to fall in love with a novel like this, that’s for sure.  And that’s also why I can’t recommend this book highly enough: if the blurb has in any way intrigued you, go and buy the book on March 17 of this year.  You won’t regret it.

I give this book 5/5 stars.

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Blood Divide by John Sadler

Blood Divide by John Sadler(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)

Gripping, visceral, and accessible historical fiction

The Battle of Flodden in September 1513 was one of the bloodiest battles ever fought on British soil, in which James IV, King of Scots, and virtually the whole of his nobility and gentry were annihilated in an afternoon along with 15,000 soldiers. Five centuries later, the slaughter still occupies a core position in the Scottish nationalist debate and in the pantheon of heroic failures. This novel puts you in the heart of the action; you’ll feel the sweat and the fear, the curtain of red mist.

The narrative covers April through September 1513, focusing around a handful of key characters: John Heron, Bastard of Ford, swaggering, violent, and disreputable, the black sheep of a good English family; Sir Thomas Howard, leader of the English forces and skilled strategist; Alexander, 3rd Lord Hume, leader of the Scots, bold but impetuous; Isabella Hoppringle, Abbess of Coldstream, hub of a web of influential women throughout the Scottish borders, a woman of significant influence and charisma.

Laced with dark humor and fascinating period detail, Blood Divide reminder readers that political intrigue and human folly are timeless.

[Full disclosure: I received a free print copy from the publisher in conjunction with the blog tour in exchange for an honest review.]

In most of the books about Henry VIII you’ll read, the Battle of Flodden is not mentioned at all.  I know this because I’ve been reading about Henry VIII in fiction for years now and never heard about Flodden until I requested this book through the blog tour!  That’s kind of incredible seeing as it has entered the Scottish consciousness through both story and song and is held up as a sort of symbol of the Scottish struggle for independence.  It was romanticized by poets and writers for generations so the fact that I didn’t know about it is just bizarre in hindsight.

However, because I knew almost nothing about the events before, during and after the battle Blood Divide presented me with a great opportunity to learn quite a bit and John Sadler couldn’t have been better at his task.  He writes in a way that emphasizes how deep the political intrigues go without confusing the reader.  Not only that, since he switches back and forth between Scottish and English characters we get to see both sides of the story but we’re always clear which side the character is on.  One of the things that really struck me about his writing was that he uses now-obscure words that the actual people would have used at the time: threapland, heidman, bevor, etc.  In the more obscure places he puts a little annotation to define it but for the most part trusts that his readers are intelligent people that can work things out in context.  This use of language from the time makes Blood Divide feel all the more authentic when coupled with the content of the descriptions themselves.  He never strays into flowery language and because of the subject matter some of his descriptions are sparse but they allow the reader to let the atmosphere of any given scene just wash over them.  As I said, it lends a very authentic feeling to the text and it does make you feel like you’re back in the 1500s alongside the characters.

The characters are, of course, all real people that are long dead so John Sadler is speculating at their motivations in some part.  However, he does this so well that even if you know the outcome of the story you’re going to cheer for your favourite characters anyway.  My personal favourite was John Heron, Bastard of Ford.  He’s an English man living close to the border of Scotland who raids into Scottish territory to gain his wealth.  (Since he’s the second son and illegitimate to boot he’s always financially struggling.)  But when his actions and the eagerness for war that seems the hallmark of James IV’s short reign come together to create a huge conflict, John is right there to help the English.  I don’t want to give too much away but the man that almost everyone looks down their nose at will certainly play a huge role in the English victory.  It’s lucky that the warden convinced others to actually listen to the man.  Of course all of the characters were well fleshed out but I did particularly like John; I’m a sucker for the underdogs.

As I said, John Sadler’s descriptions are enough to convey the scene and atmosphere and that’s actually what makes Blood Divide quite a fast-paced novel.  There’s always a sort of dark atmosphere but quite a lot of the time there’s a sense of urgency in that darkness as King James ignores the advice of some of his council and the English forces prepare to be invaded, weakened by the fact that Henry VIII is over in France making a mess of things.  So we have a much larger untested force against a smaller but generally better trained force except of course it’s never that simple when you involve politics in things.  John Sadler is able to wade through the political mess leading up to the Battle of Flodden, giving it the proper attention it needs but never allowing it to slow down the pacing.  The pacing is pretty steady in the beginning but as the drums of war sound, it slowly ratchets up until it’s almost unbearable and you simply have to keep reading.  Even if you didn’t like any of the characters (which would be extremely unlikely) the way the story is told would be enough to make you want to read on.

Essentially, Blood Divide is everything I personally look for in historical fiction: it made me learn something new, it was factually accurate, the characters were well fleshed-out with believable motivations and the plot was well paced.  You really can’t ask for more than that.  For people who study English or Scottish history I would definitely recommend picking up Blood Divide.  But even if you’re not familiar with the history of the now United Kingdom I’d recommend this book because it tells a very compelling story about something as old as time: human folly.

I give this book 5/5 stars.

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Tabor’s Trinket by Janet Lane

Tabor's Trinket by Janet Lane(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)

Sold as a slave in Romania for seven pounds and three solidi, the Gypsy girl, Sharai, escapes a slave ship infected with the plague. As an adult, she performs her silky, exotic dances to earn enough to sustain herself and the toddling orphan girl she adopted. She yearns for relief from the grinding poverty, and a secure home. Having been violated by a nobleman posing as her hero, she wants naught of any other man of title, and also scorns the dubious Gypsy king who pursues her. In a tent at the bustling autumn fair in Winchester, she meets the dashing Lord Tabor, and her resolve to avoid all noblemen softens.

Though possessed of a stately castle with prosperous lands, the English knight,Tabor, teeters on the brink of losing all his holdings. A powerful noble has attacked Tabor’s castle, determined to seize his lands. Tabor seeks revenge for his older brother’s murder, but England’s throne is held by an infant king and his feuding uncles. The realm is paralyzed with uncertainty and lawlessness, and the crown has abandoned him.

Then a stroke of good fortune helps Tabor, a sizeable dowry that can save his holdings. He need only wed an earl’s daughter, the regal Lady Emilyne. But he has already fallen in love with Sharai, and they are locked in a powerful dance of desire. His refusal to abandon Sharai plunges them into life-and-death struggles–and a painful choice between duty and love.

The story, book one in the four-volume Coin Forest series, is set in a unique period in history when Gypsies were welcomed, their travels even financed by the nobility in the countries in which they traveled. Dubbed the Gypsy social honeymoon period, it lasted for just a few decades as the Gypsies ventured into Western Europe. Growing mistrust, a waning interest in pilgrimages and increasing incidents of thievery and racial/culture clashes combined to end the honeymoon. The incidents in Tabor’s Trinket occur as the honeymoon begins to sour.

[Full disclosure: I received a free ebook as part of the blog tour in exchange for an honest review.]

English history is definitely one of the topics I’m not knowledgeable about when it comes to historical fiction but I have to say that because of Janet Lane, I learned so much more.  The most impressive thing about Tabor’s Trinket is the amount of research Lane put into the novel.  There are just tiny little details that make the world come alive like how the latest fashions were actually sewn, the little county fairs that cropped up sporadically and the migration of Gypsies into Western Europe and England.  What I found the most interesting were the scenes with Sharai where we learn about the Gypsy culture.  Obviously I can’t speak as to how accurate that was but considering the fact that the rest of the novel is very well researched I see no reason not to give Janet Lane the benefit of the doubt.  Tabor’s Trinket was certainly a learning experience for me.

The strength of this first book in the Coin Forest series is undoubtedly the characters.  Tabor is out to look for revenge for the taking of his castle and the death of his older brother and his brother’s bride-to-be.  But he’s more complicated than that, believe me!  He wants to restore his family’s fortune and get revenge but at the same time he fantasizes about making a love match, about finding a woman that’s right for him just like the heroes in all of the legends he reads.  However, that’s not really his fiscal reality and he is forced to let his overbearing mother enter into marriage negotiations with a wealthy family whose daughter he does not love.  At the same time, Sharai once dreamed about not marrying for love but marrying up in the world to gain security.  She loses this illusion when we meet her a couple of years later after she has been raped and is being pursued by a self-proclaimed King of the Gypsies.  When she’s offered a contract by Tabor to sew for his mother and the other ladies in the castle, she’s reluctant because she notices Tabor’s attraction to her.  She’s understandably wary of men and this causes a definite push-and-pull dynamic between the two as Tabor struggles to make his feelings known while at the same time respecting her feelings and her space.

This push-and-pull dynamic causes some of the conflict in the novel and is the main focus for the most part but both characters have their own conflicts to overcome.  Tabor has to figure out how to get money to keep his castle running and Sharai has to figure out how she’s going to deal with her growing feelings for Tabor while evading the Gypsy King who wants her to be his wife when her contract is up.  I can’t really talk about the plot twists because it would be giving away far too much but let’s just say that all of the conflicts come together in the climax for a couple of absolutely gripping chapters that really leave you doubting whether both lovers will even survive the final conflict or not.  The ending is sort of expected when you take the whole tone of the novel into account but I still loved it.  It makes sense, even if it was fairly predictable.  However, in between the ending and the beginning a lot of the plot twists will blindside you so Janet Lane deserves kudos for that.

If you like historical fiction with a well-developed and believable romance I think Tabor’s Trinket is the book for you.  Yes, it flirts with the whole star-crossed lovers trope but as Janet Lane shows through her amazing research, the romance between Tabor and Sharai is not unprecedented in English history.  Will it turn out like Tabor’s beloved romantic novels or will the lovers end up like Romeo and Juliet?  It’s hard to say and if you’re even a little bit intrigued by the blurb or anything I’ve said in this review I’d recommend picking up this book.  It will draw you in so quickly and you won’t want to put it down.

I give this novel 4.5/5 stars.

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Rising Dark by A. D. Koboah

Rising Dark by A. D. Koboah(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)

When the newly married Reverend Avery Wentworth embarks on a journey to the Americas to begin a new life, he foresees only joy ahead of him. But along with the shocking evils prevalent in a world of slavery, he comes against a much older, darker evil that steals his soul and turns him into a creature of the night. Cut off from humanity, he wanders through a wilderness of despair. A nameless, faceless creature forced to exist in the shadows, his only hope for salvation is the vision of a beautiful Negro and three words: Wait for me.

Rising Dark is the long awaited sequel to Dark Genesis and takes us from London 1757 to present day America in a love story that defies, time, death and the all-too-human flaws inherent in mortals and immortals alike.

[Full disclosure: I was contacted by the author and received a free ebook in exchange for an honest review.]

One of the things that struck me about Dark Genesis was the strength of Luna’s character.  In her life as a slave she goes through absolutely horrific things and that really affects her later on, even when Avery proves over and over that he would never ever hurt her.  As she learned to trust him, their love developed naturally but at the same time she still had trouble trusting.  They go through so many trials together that you can’t help but love them as a couple.  But at the end of the novel when Avery (through the eyes of one of Luna’s descendants) reveals that Luna is gone, you wonder what went wrong with the two of them.  In Rising Dark, we definitely start to get an answer.

Here in Rising Dark we see both what happened to Avery before and after the events of the first novel.  It was very interesting to see his early life in London, his move to America, his marriage and then his horrific transformation into a vampire.  What I liked best about his character was that although he goes through some very awful things he still manages to be kind to everyone, especially Luna.  When she learns to trust him and love him he is very understanding and caring but as she grew drunk on her power, things began to change between them.  Seeing Avery’s heartbreak over the whirlwind borderline abusive relationship between the two of them that develops is just heart-rending.  As their mutual happiness turns to ash, it’s very interesting to see how they both deal with it.  It really says a lot about both of their backgrounds and their personalities.  I can’t tell you much more without giving away spoilers, but Avery (obviously) does not cope very well with his beloved turning into a monster.

The plot was a lot more fast-paced than the plot of the first book.  Avery’s life story goes rather quickly so that we catch up to the point where we meet Luna fairly soon.  After that, it’s a whirlwind of plot twists and turns as the two of them play out their growing push-and-pull dynamic.  Just when you think you know what’s going to happen between the two, A. D. Koboah throws in a huge twist in the plot and forces you to re-evaluate your predictions.  This is especially true toward the end of the novel when Avery meets the descendants of Luna’s human children and discovers that a mysterious evil is stalking them as well.  Rising Dark ends on a cliffhanger and although in some cases this second book raises more questions than it answers I felt that it wasn’t an unsatisfying ending.  It just made me want to get my hands on the third book even sooner.

One of the things that makes the Darkling trilogy stand out to me is the fact that A. D. Koboah has just a beautiful writing style.  I have never been to the United States or England but she creates a very believable picture of life everywhere from a Southern plantation to the dark streets of London.  Through her descriptions, she not only paints a picture of daily life throughout the past three centuries but she also creates a sort of air of foreboding tied into the dark evil mentioned in the blurb.  It makes you want to read on even when you feel like you should probably put the book down and do something productive like sleep or eat.  Even if the pacing was slow, Koboah’s writing style would most definitely keep you hooked.  I know it did for me and now I can’t wait to learn the conclusion of Avery and Luna’s story in the third book.

I give this book 5/5 stars.

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The Devil’s Queen by Jeanne Kalogridis

The Devil's Queen by Jeanne Kalogridis(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)

From Jeanne Kalogridis, the bestselling author of I, Mona Lisa and The Borgia Bride, comes a new novel that tells the passionate story of a queen who loved not wisely . . . but all too well.

Confidante of Nostradamus, scheming mother-in-law to Mary, Queen of Scots, and architect of the bloody St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, Catherine de Medici is one of the most maligned monarchs in history. In her latest historical fiction, Jeanne Kalogridis tells Catherine’s story—that of a tender young girl, destined to be a pawn in Machiavellian games.

Born into one of Florence’s most powerful families, Catherine was soon left a fabulously rich heiress by the early deaths of her parents. Violent conflict rent the city state and she found herself imprisoned and threatened by her family’s enemies before finally being released and married off to the handsome Prince Henry of France.

Overshadowed by her husband’s mistress, the gorgeous, conniving Diane de Poitiers, and unable to bear children, Catherine resorted to the dark arts of sorcery to win Henry’s love and enhance her fertility—for which she would pay a price. Against the lavish and decadent backdrop of the French court, and Catherine’s blood-soaked visions of the future, Kalogridis reveals the great love and desire Catherine bore for her husband, Henry, and her stark determination to keep her sons on the throne.

First off, I have to say that although this is historical fiction because it’s based off of the life of Catherine de Medici, it also has elements of fantasy because Jeanne Kalogridis takes the worst rumours about the queen’s witchcraft and imagines they were real.  It’s not a bad approach and the broad strokes of Caterina’s life are of course accurate but just know that this is not strict historical fiction; there is quite a bit of fantasy.

Many of the characters are memorable but of course Caterina herself is the best.  Her family was out of power when she was an adolescent and before she got married so not only did she experience the glamorous side of life but the rougher side that comes with strife, conflict and civil war.  This early experience with a life-threatening situation leaves a chip on her shoulder that she will carry for the rest of her life.  She knows that it is the most important thing she can do as a queen to produce a son (preferably lots of sons) but when her husband seems disgusted by her and she does not get pregnant she turns to witchcraft and blood magic.  One particular scene is pretty horrific but it’s in keeping with her character: no matter the cost to herself she will have an heir and avert civil war.  She does some pretty horrible things and although she’s not always completely sympathetic, I do feel for Jeanne Kalogridis’ version of her.  Her husband is disgusted by her and goes to his mother figure/mistress Diane de Poitiers, she is not an attractive woman and is marginalized politically, etc.  Caterina had a hard childhood matched by a hard life; she’s far from perfect but you do have to feel for her.

While the plot isn’t exactly fast-paced it is interesting.  I’ve read only one other book about Caterina de Medici so it was nice to learn more about the civil strife that led to her imprisonment in two different nunneries as a preteen and how she was married off to King Henry (then prince).  Once she gets to France there’s a lot of interpersonal conflict between characters but it’s not just drama for the sake of drama.  Jeanne Kalogridis has a purpose to every scene and even though it may not seem like it at the time, every scene moves the plot forward to the horrifying conclusion.  So while The Devil’s Queen is no action/thriller novel, it is very interesting and even if you know about her historical reign as queen and regent, Jeanne Kalogridis may just surprise you with some of the things she speculates at.  Nothing is for certain at court, especially when it comes to the royal family.

I know a little about the period but as you’ve probably guessed I’m no expert.  However, the main events of the story are very much real and Jeanne Kalogridis inserts those little details into everyday life that make you really feel like you’re there.  Personally, I loved that the French all thought Caterina and her Italian entourage were positively barbaric for eating their food with the forks they brought with them.  It’s just those little details that both make you laugh and educate you about how certain cultural practices became the norm in pretty much all of the Western hemisphere.  There are so many more little details like that that you can tell Kalogridis really did her research (particularly about Medieval astrology).  She combines fantasy and history perfectly into this harrowing tale of the complicated life of a complicated woman.

I give this book 5/5 stars.

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Daughters of Rome by Kate Quinn

Daughters of Rome by Kate Quinn(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)

A.D. 69. Nero is dead.

The Roman Empire is up for the taking. With bloodshed spilling out of the palace and into the streets of Rome, chaos has become the status quo. The Year of Four Emperors will change everything—especially the lives of two sisters with a very personal stake in the outcome….

Elegant and ambitious, Cornelia embodies the essence of the perfect Roman wife. She lives to one day see her loyal husband as Emperor. Her sister, Marcella, is more withdrawn, content to witness history rather than make it. Even so, Marcella has her share of distinguished suitors, from a cutthroat contender for the throne to a politician’s son who swears that someday he will be Emperor.

But when a bloody coup turns their world upside down, Cornelia and Marcella—along with their cousins, one a collector of husbands and lovers, the other a horse-mad beauty with no interest in romance—must maneuver carefully just to stay alive. As Cornelia tries to pick up the pieces of her shattered dreams, Marcella discovers a hidden talent for influencing the most powerful men in Rome. In the end, though, there can only be one Emperor … and one Empress.

In order of publication, Daughters of Rome is technically the second book in Kate Quinn’s Empress of Rome series but chronologically it is the first.  It’s a sort of prequel and you will recognize some of the characters we meet in Mistress of Rome except for the fact that they’re a couple of decades younger.  And the story takes place not in the relative stability of Domitian’s reign but the violent chaos that was the Year of the Four Emperors.  You would think that by virtue of having more drama (which Kate Quinn excels at writing about) the story itself would be better.  The problem is, it isn’t.  The strength of the first book was in its characters, notably Thea, but in this second book the characters really are the weakness.

First off, in true Roman fashion there are four cousins, all named Cornelia because they’re from the wealthy and influential Cornelii family.  Kate Quinn helpfully gives us nicknames for them all (the eldest Cornelia is the only one actually called by her name) and it does take a little bit to get used to.  However, after a couple of chapters it’s pretty easy to get everyone all organized because their personalities are fairly distinct.  Cornelia is the ideal senator’s wife, Marcella is a bookish woman who just wants to write history, Lollia has the most unfortunate string of marriages imaginable and Diana, the youngest, is horse crazy.  We do get to see the chaos from the eyes of all four of the sisters: the changing alliances, the marriage swapping, the crass power grabs not even bothered to be cloaked in lofty ideals, etc.  The Year of the Four Emperors was a horrifying time to be a Roman, particularly since backing one person meant glory one day and committing suicide while on the run the next.  Against this horrific background, you’d think that the characters would particularly stand out.

The problem is that none of the characters stand out; they didn’t have that authenticity that made Thea such a powerful, moving character.  Diana is the only one who is vaguely believable in her actions but the idea that she’d be a female charioteer is just ludicrous.  Roman women were generally more free than Greek women but they certainly weren’t that free, especially if they were from one of the main families in Rome.  Lollia’s string of husbands is definitely believable but even though she finds love in an unusual place I never really connected with her and her plight.  Like Marcella, her character felt rather hollow.  Marcella’s character didn’t ring true to me because even though she’s a bookworm much like myself, she gets into all of these situations that feel like they’re the direct result of Kate Quinn’s manipulation of historical fact.  It doesn’t feel natural that she finds herself in the midst of all of this trouble as it should; it feels forced and as such her character doesn’t grow in the way you would expect it to.  Cornelia, the eldest of the four cousins and sister of Marcella, is a bland Roman matron who also finds love in an unexpected place.  She at least is a believable character and I could sort of connect to her plight.

While the plot was certainly fast-paced and interesting (how could the Year of the Four Emperors not be, though?), it was surprisingly unsatisfying.  Kate Quinn uses the most gossipy of all the gossipy sources on Roman history and takes the worst of said gossip to portray each emperor as a caricature of what they probably really were.  This is not surprising given her portrayal of Domitian as a total sadist in the Marquis de Sade mold but it does make it seem like she’s going for the most drama no matter the historical reality.  Galba was a stick in the mud, Otho was a jealous brooding sort of hedonist and Vitellius was a total glutton/hedonist but I think Quinn takes things just a little too far and it seems like she’s playing things up for her audience.  As some people on Goodreads mentioned, it makes it feel like you’re reading The Real Housewives of Ancient Rome.  Really, the story would be just as good if she toned down some of the drama and didn’t rely so heavily on Flavian-biased historians.

Overall, I felt that compared to Mistress of Rome was a much better book than her second book.  That’s kind of shocking considering it was her debut but it was certainly much more satisfying than Daughters of Rome, which ends so randomly and incomprehensibly that I was left scratching my head in disbelief at the actions of three of the four sisters.  There were a lot of good things happening in this book, mainly the portrayal of the chaotic events and the uncertainty that gripped all of Rome but on the character front it was the most unsatisfying book I’ve ever read by Kate Quinn.  It’s just a complete disappointment to me, considering the fact that I loved her Borgia Chronicles and her debut novel.  Really, the only thing that can adequately express my feelings toward this book is the word ‘meh’.

I give this book 2/5 stars.

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