Category: Historical Fiction

The Witch of Napoli by Michael Schmicker

The Witch of Napoli by Michael Schmicker

(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)

Italy 1899: Fiery-tempered, seductive medium Alessandra Poverelli levitates a table at a Spiritualist séance in Naples. A reporter photographs the miracle, and wealthy, skeptical, Jewish psychiatrist Camillo Lombardi arrives in Naples to investigate. When she materializes the ghost of his dead mother, he risks his reputation and fortune to finance a tour of the Continent, challenging the scientific and academic elite of Europe to test Alessandra’s mysterious powers. She will help him rewrite Science. His fee will help her escape her sadistic husband Pigotti and start a new life in Rome. Newspapers across Europe trumpet her Cinderella story and baffling successes, and the public demands to know – does the “Queen of Spirits” really have supernatural powers? Nigel Huxley is convinced she’s simply another vulgar, Italian trickster. The icy, aristocratic detective for England’s Society for the Investigation of Mediums launches a plot to trap and expose her. Meanwhile, the Vatican is quietly digging up her childhood secrets, desperate to discredit her supernatural powers; her abusive husband Pigotti is coming to kill her; and the tarot cards predict catastrophe. Inspired by the true-life story of controversial Italian medium Eusapia Palladino (1854-1918), The Witch of Napoli masterfully resurrects the bitter,19th-century battle between Science and religion over the possibility of an afterlife.

[Full disclosure: I requested and received a free ebook through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

One of the many things Michael Schmicker does well in The Witch of Napoli is bring to life the late Victorian era.  He brings to life the grubbiness and beauty of Italy’s cities and its countryside.  He absolutely captures the obsession with bringing the scientific method into every aspect of life that used to be taken for granted, particularly the spiritual side of life.  And best of all, he captures the individual struggles and triumphs of his various characters beautifully.  Even if you don’t like the narrator, Tomaso, you will find at least one character to love and for me that was Alessandra herself.

Alessandra is a fiery woman who believes absolutely in the spirits she summons.  She’s opinionated and she doesn’t take kindly to insults, perceived or real.  And because of her fiery temper, she is also passionate in both love and hatred.  Her story is fabulous and she really does grow as a charcter throughout the novel.  Despite the fact her story is told through Tomaso’s eyes (the young reporter and photographer who follows her around), Alessandra herself is never secondary.  There are a lot of times her personality outshines Tomaso’s, although that may just be from my perspective.  Don’t get me wrong—Tomaso is not a bad or even a boring character.  It’s just that Alessandra absolutely outshines him.  Tomaso goes from a wide-eyed young man to a somewhat cynical, yet hopeful man who learns to find his way in life.

The plot is not exactly fast-paced but Michael Schmicker’s writing style is beautiful and he lavishes time on character development.  At the same time, there are many interesting plots and subplots and some pretty terrifying scenes when Alessandra calls on the spirits.  So it’s an interesting book but it’s not fast-paced.  The only reason I was somewhat disappointed in this book is that the ending was very unsatisfying.  I would have loved for a less abrupt conclusion, even though I knew that such a conclusion was inevitable.  The abrupt ending just leaves you rather empty in comparison to the rest of the novel, which spends more time on most major plot points.  It’s not enough to make me dislike the plot as a whole but it was a little disappointing after the masterful twists and turns that were well explained earlier in the book.

In the end, The Witch of Napoli is an amazing book that fell a little flat in the end.  There are some absolutely amazing charcters and great plot twists in addition to a beautiful writing style.  I would absolutely still recommend it to anyone who loves a taste of the supernatural in their novels or anyone who just loves an amazing main character.

I give this book 4/5 stars.

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An Immortal Descent by Kari Edgren

An Immortal Descent by Kari Edgren

(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)

Selah Kilbrid, descendant of the Celtic goddess Brigid, has been ordered to remain in London and leave any dangers in Ireland to her goddess-born family. They fear she’s no match for Death’s most powerful daughter and—if the legend holds true—the witch who once nearly destroyed the Irish people. But Selah has never been good at following orders, and nothing will stop her from setting out to find the two people she loves most—her dearest friend, Nora Goodwin, and her betrothed, Lord Henry Fitzalan.

Hiding from kin, traveling uneasily beside companions with secrets of their own, Selah is forced on an unexpected path by those who would steal her gift of healing. With precious time ticking away, she turns to a mortal enemy for help, heedless of the cost.

Selah would pass though hell to rescue Nora and Henry, but what if it means unleashing a greater evil on the human world? Her only chance is to claim the fullest extent of her birthright—at the risk of being forever separated from the man she longs to marry.

[Full disclosure: I requested and received a free ebook through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

It took me much longer than expected to finally get to An Immortal Descent, the last book in the Goddess Born trilogy, but I finally did.  And I’m very, very glad I did.

The second book ended on a cliffhanger with Selah’s friend Nora being kidnapped by Deri, the daughter of Cailleach who can kill people just by touching them.  So Selah has to travel to Ireland, where Deri has taken her friend for a possible ritual sacrifice. Of course the journey doesn’t go very smoothly as we discover that Cailleach has more than just one child on the loose and that perhaps not all of Brigid’s children use their gifts for good as Selah does.  There are plenty of twists and turns on Selah’s journey with a surprising yet satisfying ending.  Even better, the plot is relatively fast-paced considering just how much information and character development Kari Edgren puts into her novel.

What I really loved about An Immortal Descent was the expanded mythology of the goddess born.  As we learn, Cailleach and Brigid certainly aren’t the only ones to have descendants in the human world, even if they do seem to be the most prolific.  There are others like Nuada, Balor and Lugh whose descendants have motivations of their own and unique powers.  And unlike with descendants of Brigid and Cailleach, their powers aren’t always immediately apparent.  It certainly makes for a few surprises throughout the novel.

Another satisfying bit was the character development of Selah.  She’s come a long way from the first book but it’s only really now that she’s truly learning to trust her instincts when it comes to her healing powers.  Selah tries to do things she never would have in terms of healing in the first book (like reattaching a certain idiot’s hand).  And she’s becoming more self-possessed, more willing to challenge Henry on his seemingly increasing penchant for violence.  She stands up to people like Julian, James and Cate more than she did in the last book and finally takes fate into her own hands.  It’s a wonderful transformation from the generally shy yet still feisty woman we met in the first book.

Although Henry doesn’t play as big of a role in this book as he did in previous ones, he’s still present and he’s definitely a changed man.  Despite his penchant for violence and his hot temper, he listens to Selah and values her opinion.  Even when he completely disagrees with her, he at least listens before taking action.  And now Henry isn’t as blind to the motivations of those around him.  He realizes that James completely mistreated Selah and that Julian is a growing danger (not just a romantic rival), despite ostensibly being on the side of the other goddess born like Tom and Cate.  When he and Selah are together, they make a very well balanced couple and they’re one of my favourite book couples of all time.

If you enjoyed the previous two books, Goddess Born and A Grave Inheritance, you’ll love An Immortal Descent.  It’s a satisfying conclusion to a thoroughly enjoyable trilogy.  I can’t wait to see more from Kari Edgren in the coming years.

I give this book 5/5 stars.

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Médicis Daughter by Sophie Perinot

Medicis Daughter by Sophie Perinot

(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)

Winter, 1564. Beautiful young Princess Margot is summoned to the court of France, where nothing is what it seems and a wrong word can lead to ruin. Known across Europe as Madame la Serpente, Margot’s intimidating mother, Queen Catherine de Médicis, is a powerful force in a country devastated by religious war. Among the crafty nobility of the royal court, Margot learns the intriguing and unspoken rules she must live by to please her poisonous family.

Eager to be an obedient daughter, Margot accepts her role as a marriage pawn, even as she is charmed by the powerful, charismatic Duc de Guise. Though Margot’s heart belongs to Guise, her hand will be offered to Henri of Navarre, a Huguenot leader and a notorious heretic looking to seal a tenuous truce. But the promised peace is a mirage: her mother’s schemes are endless, and her brothers plot vengeance in the streets of Paris. When Margot’s wedding devolves into the bloodshed of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, she will be forced to choose between her family and her soul.

Médicis Daughter is historical fiction at its finest, weaving a unique coming-of-age story and a forbidden love with one of the most dramatic and violent events in French history.

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

One of the women you hear a lot about is Catherine de Médici.  She’s the subject of numerous historical fiction novels and has a reputation among the general public for being a wicked, manipulative queen.  While the consensus among historians is somewhat different, there is no doubt she was a ruthless, oddly pragmatic woman.  But what was her daughter, Marguerite de Valois like?  Sophie Perinot gives us a look into the ilfe of another incredible woman who has been largely ignored by history.

Our poor Margot starts out fairly innocent but is changed by court life when her mother finally summons her to live at court as her lady in waiting.  In the beginning, she tries to be the perfect princess: she supports her brothers fully, doesn’t seek power for herself and lives chastely despite the fact that the court was largely not.  Then, everything changes when she’s fifteen and falls in love for the first time with Henri, Duc de Guise.  Before then, she was resigned to being a marriage pawn for her mother and brothers.  After falling in love, Margot really comes into her own.  She demands to be let in on the political discussions that her mother participates in but bars her from.  She gains power through her broher Henri, Duc d’Anjou (known mostly as Anjou to avoid confusion).  But of course nothing goes according to plan for poor Margot as the people around her have plans and schemes of their own.

While the beginning of this novel is somewhat confusing because of all the names thrown at the reader, you can actually get your footing pretty quickly.  There are three characters with the first name of Henri in this novel but they’re mostly known by their titles and their personalities are so unique anyway that you won’t confuse the three of them.  One of the hallmarks of Médicis Daughter is Sophie Perinot’s descriptive writing style that brings the court and the characters to life.  She can be beautifully descriptive but also knows when to pare down her writing for the sake of pacing.  And she captures both the beauty in the novel (the young love, the nicer family moments) and the ugliness as well (the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, the awful treatment of her by her own family).

Sophie Perinot, as she says in her historical note, stays quite close to historical fact but cut out some characters because they weren’t central to the narrative and changed a few minor events.  For example, Margot was never left alone with the Queen of Navarre on her deathbed.  It makes for a better and less confusing story so I can’t really blame her for that.  After all, three Henris is more than enough to try to keep straight, no matter how familiar you are with the period.  As someone who is relatively new to the period, I was certainly grateful for a few characters being cut as there is a relatively large cast of secondary characters.

All in all, I was very impressed with Médicis Daughter.  It does everything historical fiction should do: shines light on the lives of real historical figures/time periods, is well written and is reasonably paced.  Sophie Perinot doesn’t write a fast-paced novel by any stretch of the imagination as most of it is character-driven but you can slowly feel the tension building toward the end as the massacre comes closer and closer.  You aren’t entirely sure what is going to happen and how Margot is going to react, which makes it all the better.  If you’re looking for an intersting novel on a largely ignored historical figure, Médicis Daughter daughter is a really great book to pick up.

I give this book 5/5 stars.

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The Tale of the Vampire Bride by Rhiannon Frater

The Tale of the Vampire Bride by Rhiannon Frater(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)

Set in the 1820s, The Tale of the Vampire Bride is sure to thrill fans of vampires of literary past with its lush, gothic atmosphere and terrifying spectacle.

All Lady Glynis Wright ever wanted was the freedom to live life as she pleased, despite her aristocratic parents’ wishes for her to marry into wealth. But her fate is far more terrible than an arranged marriage when her family becomes prisoners to one of the most fearsome and powerful vampires of all time, Count Vlad Dracula.

Imprisoned in the decrepit castle in the Carpathian Mountains, Glynis’s new life as a Bride of Dracula is filled with bloody feasts, cruel beatings, and sexual depravity. There is no hope for escape. Vlad Dracula has elaborate plans to use her familial connections in England and she has become his favored pawn. Even more terrible is the bond of blood between them that keeps Glynis tethered to his side despite her deep hatred of him.

It’s only when Vlad Dracula takes Glynis to the picturesque city of Buda on the Danube River and she meets a mysterious vampire in the darkened city streets, does she dare hope to find love and freedom.

Rhiannon Frater sure wasn’t kidding when she said that this book was ‘gothic horror’ on Goodreads.  It’s pretty bloody and it’s definitely not for the faint of heart but at the same time none of the violence is really unnecessary.  There’s always a point to it; none of it is gratuitous.  And the most important part is that it really jars the reader in the same manner that poor Glynis herself is jarred as she’s thrown into the life of an unwilling wife to one of the most famous psychopaths in history: Vlad the Impaler.

 Glynis is a pretty extraordinary woman for her time.  She really doesn’t want to get married; she really just wants to be her own woman, independent and free.  In her time that’s certainly unconventional but not an impossibility when you have wealth on your side so it’s not like she’s a stand-in for a modern woman.  No, she definitely tries to rebel within the narrow confines of society and that’s part of the reason why she runs afoul of Count Dracula and his brides once her family is killed and she is turned.  Glynis loves her independence and being raped and controlled by Dracula isn’t exactly being independent.  So as she suffers, Glynis begins to plot to gain her freedom by any means possible.  I don’t want to give too much away but let’s just say that when Dracula begins to love her in his manner (because realistically he is not the sort of man to fall in real love) it’s the beginning of the end of his reign of terror over poor Glynis and the other brides.

One of the things that struck me the in the first novel I read by Rhiannon Frater, The Last Bastion of the Living, was the complex psychology involved.  The Tale of the Vampire Bride is really no different in that it presents some pretty abnormal psychology without condoning or condemning it.  She simply portrays the characters without judgment and leaves it up to the reader to figure things out.  Is it a result of all of the trauma she’s gone through that Glynis starts to actually feel something (not love) for Dracula?  Or is it that she’s finally accepting her vampire life?  I personally think it’s a result of the trauma combined with an acceptance of her vampire life but Rhiannon Frater smartly leaves things up to the reader for them to figure out themselves.  She’s not one of these authors that tries to beat her readers over the head with the obvious stick.  Her writing is subtle and ambiguous, which is perfect for this kind of gothic tale.

I was a little hesitant about this book in the beginning because it starts off relatively slow with Glynis and her family travelling around in Transylvania to try yet again to find Glynis a husband.  But things pick up pretty quickly when they get mysteriously diverted to Dracula’s castle and meet the count himself.  After that the story involves a lot of the push-pull dynamic between Vlad and Glynis as both of them try to assert their authority.  Sometimes Dracula wins, sometimes (particularly toward the end) Glynis wins.  She learns to survive and there’s another level of intrigue dropped in when the two of them go to Buda and find that humans aren’t the only things they need to worry about.  Glynis’ journey is one of sorrow, torture and strife while at the same time it’s a story of hope, redemption and even love.  Even when the pacing itself is slow, it’s hard not to be captivated by the story itself and the amazing, memorable characters.

That’s why even if you’re not a big fan of gothic horror novels, The Tale of the Vampire Bride is worth a try.  I certainly didn’t expect to love it as much as I did and maybe you’ll surprise yourself as well.

I give this book 5/5 stars.

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Éire’s Devil King by Sandi Layne

Eire's Devil King by Sandi Layne(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)

A man of ability and ambition, Tuirgeis Erlingrson has nurtured the desire to carve a place of leadership for himself on the Green Island, Éire, that he has raided multiple times. After the death of his wife in Nordweg, he takes his surviving son to Éire. Having connections with his adopted brother, Cowan, and Agnarr, his former countryman, Tuirgeis feels he has the support he needs to make his claims strong.

Agnarr is torn. His promise to Aislinn to remain with her on Éire is still in force, and he resists Tuirgeis’s requests to join the conquering forces from Nordweg. He desires above all things to maintain a safe home for his wife and children in Dal Fíatach. Charis encourages Cowan to do the same, though this makes for tense moments between them.

After initial disastrous attempts to achieve his ambition, Tuirgeis comes to learn that there is more to claiming a kingship than merely overpowering the locals. Tuirgeis finds himself at odds with the very people he had hoped would reinforce him. In addition, he wants to establish his father-line. He has one son; he wants another to be born of Éire. Will the woman of his choice accept and support him?

At length, Agnarr and Aislinn—though she is heavy with child—sail with Cowan and Charis to join Tuirgeis as he battles over one final summer to attain the High Kingship of the island.

Tuirgeis knows he doesn’t have long to make his claims; the Danes are coming in greater numbers than before. As he wins men of Éire to his cause, he has to maintain the relationships he has already fostered with Agnarr and Cowan. Charis finds that her Otherworldly gifts are needed by a man she considers her enemy.

[Full disclosure: I requested and received a free ebook through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

I’m always a little nervous starting the last book in a series that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed.  Why?  It’s usually because I’m worried that the author isn’t able to wrap things up in a satisfying manner, answering most (if not all) questions that arose throughout the series.  Sometimes my nervousness is justified and other times it’s not.  Éire’s Devil King is most definitely the latter.  I didn’t need to be nervous at all when it comes to the last Éire’s Viking book.

In the first book I always favoured Turgeis above Agnarr, maybe in part because Turgeis was not the one actively raping Charis and humiliating her.  Agnarr reformed himself in the second book but I still was generally more interested in Turgeis’ story.  In the beginning I’ll admit I was a little disappointed in how slow the book started out but once things got going, they really did get going.  Turgeis is a man who is already quite mature but throughout the story he does come to see things in a much different light.  Instead of burning and pillaging he wants to assimilate to a certain extent and rule over the locals.  He won’t give up his precious Norse gods and convert to Christianity like Cowan and Agnarr but he at least tolerates Christianity and doesn’t impose religion on anyone.  As you can probably guess, his hands are far from clean but I definitely like this new Turgeis better than the old one.

Turgeis is definitely the main focus of this last story but we also see some incredible glimpses into the lives of Charis, Cowan, Agnarr and Aislinn on occasion.  Charis and Cowan aren’t getting any younger (well, Cowan sure isn’t whereas Charis is her same ageless self) and Aislinn and Agnarr are still working on having some more children.  Things don’t always go smoothly in the village because the Danes are coming to raid their land but overall there’s much more peace on the island than there was when we first met Charis.  This is in part due to Cowan being Turgeis’ adopted brother but also because the men from Nordweg are more interested in immigration and assimilate than conquest.  They want to be a part of the great island instead of just plundering its riches.  I really liked how Sandi Layne showed that gradual change that comes over decades while at the same time introducing the new threat of the Danes to help move the plot along.

Charis, as always, stole the story for me.  She’s an incredible woman with possibly Otherworldly powers but she also doesn’t have her head in the clouds like you’d expect from someone like her.  There are times she can be very stubborn but she’s at heart a pragmatic woman and will ally with people she dislikes, such as Turgeis, in order to achieve her own ends.  In this book it’s peace on her island and a home from her adopted daughter’s children and grandchildren.  There’s an interesting little epilogue that brings her incredible story to an end and it’s really quite satisfying even if we don’t know exactly what she is and where her powers truly come from.  It’s sort of left to the reader to figure things out and draw their own conclusions.

So while the plot wasn’t fast-paced in the beginning things quickly got exciting and through it all the incredible characters Sandi Layne has created over three books really shone through.  Charis in particular stands out to me but all of the characters were very well developed; there’s a character for everyone here.  From the author’s note I believe the little historical details within the story are true as are the broader strokes like the migration of the Danes but Sandi Layne does admit to changing around Turgeis’ story just a little bit.  And that’s fine because it really works well for this story.  I’m sad to see the trilogy end but it was done in a way that really satisfied me as a reader so I have no problem with that.  It’s a great ending to a good trilogy.

I give this book 5/5 stars.

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The Summer Queen by Elizabeth Chadwick

The Summer Queen by Elizabeth Chadwick(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)

Eleanor of Aquitaine is a 12th century icon who has fascinated readers for 800 years. But the real Eleanor remains elusive.

This stunning novel introduces an Eleanor that all other writers have missed. Based on the most up-to-date research, it is the first novel to show Eleanor beginning her married life at 13.

Overflowing with scandal, passion, triumph and tragedy, Eleanor’s legendary story begins when her beloved father dies in the summer of 1137, and she is made to marry the young prince Louis of France. A week after the marriage she becomes a queen and her life will change beyond recognition . . .

Seeing as I really don’t know much about Eleanor of Aquitaine I’m not qualified to comment on the historical accuracy but I think it’s pretty exciting that The Summer Queen is based on new research into Eleanor’s life, including the fact that she was married at the tender age of 13.  Also within this book, Chadwick uses the way Eleanor herself actually spelled her name: Alienor.  It gives it a more authentic feeling and gives a little more recognition to the real historical figure that’s the centre of this novel.

First off, I was very impressed with the character of Alienor.  She’s a very complicated person, much like the real historical figure.  Her childhood was fairly carefree in Aquitaine but when her father died when she was a pre-teen, life definitely changed for the worst for her.  She initially was enraptured with Louis when she married him at age 13 but throughout the story she becomes understandably frustrated with the utter lack of passion in her marriage.  Louis really would have made a better monk than a husband, as she quips at one point.  So in a bid to get out from underneath her overbearing mother-in-law and her bossy, stuffy husband she rebels in small ways by bringing bits of Aquitaine with her to court including its bright fashions and beautiful music.  I liked how she desperately tried to find happiness despite an objectively terrible situation and when she actually achieved some measure of happiness after her divorce, she desperately clung to it.  Having experienced years of misery, I really don’t blame her.  She had to grow up pretty fast and had a pretty rough life up until she met and married Henry of Anjou.  Even then, her happiness is only temporary.

The plot is not very fast-paced I must admit and I did struggle at some points.  What saves The Summer Queen is Elizabeth Chadwick’s writing style, which both lends an air of authenticity to the work and makes things interesting enough to get readers through the long travel sections (particularly the section where Alienor is on the crusade with Louis).  Sometimes even then the pacing drags the book down, however.  But the book is interesting enough in general to get you through those really slow sections and to the very exciting events of Alienor’s life.  She really was an incredible woman who was not allowed to be all that incredible until she achieved the legal independence she craved.  Alienor definitely chafed under the expectations put upon her in France, especially since she was such a strong-willed and passionate woman.  Even if you can’t get past the slow pacing, I thin kthe character of Alienor really carries the day.

Again, I can’t speak for the historical accuracy of this novel but I do believe Chadwick did more than enough research to lend an air of authenticity to the text.  She has this way of writing that puts you right there along with Alienor from the beauty of Aquitaine to her brutal trip slogging through hostile territory to get to the Holy Land.  She does admit to speculating about an affair between Alienor and one of her vassals because it cannot be proven but I feel she made a strong enough case to her readers so it didn’t feel like she was adding in intrigue for intrigue’s sake.  I am a little skeptical of all that she has written because she uses “the Akashic Records…to fill in the blanks and explore what happened in the past from a psychic perspective.”  That’s a little, um…unconventional…for me but she at least justifies her choices with more reliable historical records.  That’s why I’m not going to say that her research is 100% reliable, both because I know so little about the period and the fact she uses a ‘psychic perspective’.

Her research methods aside, The Summer Queen is a great read even though it does drag in sections.  The character of Alienor really does shine through and I think that if you love historical fiction and want to learn more about the famous queen, this is definitely a good book to pick up.

I give this book 4/5 stars.

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The Figaro Murders by Laura Lebow

The Figaro Murders by Laura Lebow(Cover picture courtesy of NetGalley.)

In 1786 Vienna, Lorenzo Da Ponte is the court librettist for the Italian Theatre during the height of the enlightened reign of Emperor Joseph II. This exalted position doesn’t mean he’s particularly well paid, or even out of reach of the endless intrigues of the opera world. In fact, far from it.

One morning, Da Ponte stops off at his barber, only to find the man being taken away to debtor’s prison. Da Ponte impetuously agrees to carry a message to his barber’s fiancée and try to help her set him free, even though he’s facing pressures of his own. He’s got one week to finish the libretto for The Marriage of Figaro for Mozart before the opera is premiered for the Emperor himself.

Da Ponte visits the house where the barber’s fiancée works—the home of a nobleman, high in the Vienna’s diplomatic circles—and then returns to his own apartments, only to be dragged from his rooms in the middle of the night. It seems the young protégé of the diplomat was killed right about the time Da Ponte was visiting, and he happens to be their main suspect. Now he’s given a choice—go undercover into the household and uncover the murderer, or be hanged for the crime himself.

Brilliantly recreating the cultural world of late 18th century Vienna, the epicenter of the Enlightenment, Lebow brings to life some of the most famous figures of music, theatre, and politics.

[Full disclosure: I requested and received a free ebook in exchange for an honest review.]

First off, if you’ve watched the actual opera The Marriage of Figaro you will appreciate this book much, much more.  It’s not necessary for understanding it or even appreciating it but you will appreciate it on a much deeper level if you have seen the opera.

Why?  That’s because we have a murder mystery set in Vienna with what are essentially the characters of the opera.  We have ourselves a lecherous count, a desperate love-seeking countess, her grumpy former guardian, a girl-obsessed young nobleman working as a page, a maid and a barber.  That, my friends, reads very much like the list of characters in the actual opera.  But if you have seen the opera, don’t worry.  The murderer is definitely not who you think it is and not for the reasons you think.  Knowing something about the characters and general plot doesn’t reveal the culprit too early, believe me.  Really, Laura Lebow basing her characters off of actual characters in the opera was brilliant in that respect because if you’ve seen the opera you think you’ll know who did it but it’s really a sort of red herring.  It just adds a whole other layer to the book and I did enjoy it.

Lorenzo Da Ponte himself is nothing like I pictured but I never actually knew much about the historical figure so that’s not really saying much.  He’s a largely toothless lady-killer, a relatively impoverished man working as the court poet and sort of official librettist at the court of one of the more enlightened European monarchs, Joseph II.  He was good friends with Mozart and is of course a bitter rival of Salieri and his librettist.  Essentially, in the beginning he’s not all that remarkable but things change quickly when he’s accused of murdering young Florian.  Then the secret service equivalent of the day swoops in and forces him to go undercover in the household as a poetry teacher to discover who really murdered the young prince.  Why would they send a poet in to do a spy’s work?  Well, things aren’t all that simple in Vienna of the day and some main players keep their cards very close to the chest.  Despite his indignation at the whole situation, Lorenzo does rise to the occasion quite well and discovers that not everything is as it seems in that household.

Laura Lebow’s writing was excellent.  She brings to life 18th century Vienna so well that you really do feel like you’re there along with Lorenzo.  Her characters are well fleshed-out anyway but it’s her brilliant writing that really makes them come alive.  While you may or may not be able to predict who killed Florian near the end, I personally was quite surprised (not that that’s really saying much as I don’t read many mystery novels.)  Even if you are able to predict the outcome, I think you’ll enjoy the book because Lebow writes suspense quite well.  Throughout the book there’s this aura of tension that gets slowly ratcheted up as the novel progresses.  Sometimes it’s almost unbearable and you just have to keep reading to find out what happens next.  Really, you can’t ask for more in a historical murder mystery: actual history brought to life and plenty of mystery and suspense.

The book ended quite realistically and I was actually surprised to learn that The Marriage of Figaro was not what Da Ponte was most known for in his day because it’s a staple of opera houses everywhere.  No, he was known for some obscure little opera that is practically never performed today.  But after he solved the mystery and the opera premiered fairly successfully, he and Mozart are going on a little road trip to write one of the darker, more terrifying operas I’ve ever seen: Don Giovanni.  It was definitely a satisfying ending with that little promise of an awesome sequel coming up because I do love Don Giovanni as well.  The Figaro Murders doesn’t come out until March 31, but I already can’t wait for the next book.

I give this book 5/5 stars.

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As a side note, if you are interested in actually watching Le nozze di Figaro, the best version I’ve found is from James Levine’s 40th anniversary at the Met.  Unfortunately, it’s no longer available although you can watch clips on YouTube here (the first three videos were deleted for whatever reason but you can get the gist of the first scene from the rest of it).  It’s hard to ruin either of the Figaro operas, so as long as you stay away from the Mozart Festival one with Anna Netrebko you’ll be fine.  The cast was great in that one (particularly Netrebko herself), but the production was total and utter crap and the choreographer and/or director were clearly on something.