The Vatican Princess by C.W. Gortner

imgres-1When it comes to representations of powerful women in history, those responsible for recording the events in their era have a great deal of explaining to do. So often the women, if they’re mentioned at all, bear the burden of guilt – for war, death, the downfall of dynasties etc. – as they’re continuously depicted as promiscuous (think Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard), murderous (Catherine De Medici), treacherous, mad and/or bad. What’s worse in some ways is when they’re completely elided from history, as if they never existed. Even Samuel Pepys, the greatest diarist in history, barely rates his wife, Elizabeth, a mention, except when he notes an argument or something trivial. Kudos, then, to C.W. Gortner who, like Philippa Gregory and other writers, in The Vatican Princess, seeks to reclaim the life of Lucrezia Borgia. In retelling at least seven years of her life, he offers readers an alternate way of perceiving major events of the period and the woman at the centre of them.

Best remembered by popular history as the illegitimate daughter of a pope who indulged in incest with both her father and at least one of her brothers (depending which accounts of her and that period you read), as well as using poison to despatch her enemies, Gortner uses primary and secondary sources to reconstruct Lucrezia’s life and offer a different version.

In this novel, far from being an arch seductress and powerbroker, Lucrezia, though no innocent, is a pawn in deadly political and sexual games, ones that limit her choices and freedoms. Proud of her familial heritage and the Borgia blood that flows in her veins, nothing prepares young Lucrezia for the constant threat that hangs over her and the terrible sacrifices she must make for the sake of her family. But it’s when she comes to understand that the enemies her brothers and father – and those in league with them – fear most are actually within the family and not without, that she learns her fate is not a matter of free will but the strategic determination of the manipulative men she most loves.

Written from Lucrezia’s point of view and using historical sources to guide him, Gortner has done a terrific job of recreating a volatile and corrupt period as well as salvaging Lucrezia’s voice and offering an alternative to the “facts” about her that circulate.

A great read for lovers of history, Italian culture, women’s roles and Renaissance Europe.

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The Confessions of Catherine de Medici by C. W. Gortner.

Having read a few of Gortner’s books and really enjoyed them, I so looked forward to losing myself in this fictitious retelling of the life of Catherine de Medici, one of the most notorious women in history who has been blamed for everything from poisoning members of her own family (including some of her children), the French royals, dabbling in prophecy and the Dark Arts, to instigating St Bartholomew Day massacre – the day thousands of Hugenots (French Protestants) were brutally slaughtered at the hands of their own countrymen. Using contemporary documents as well as a considerable knowledge of the era, Gortner presents the reader with a different kind of woman – strong, resourceful, and passionate and one determined to leave a legacy for her surviving children.

11464970-1Written in the first person (as you’d expect a novel entitled “confessions” to be), the book commences with Catherine’s family’s expulsion from their native Florence and the ambivalent rule of her loathed relative, the Pope. Betrothed to Henri, son of Francois I of France, Catherine is sent there and determines to make a new home and life in this foreign country. Despised because of her lowly birth and ethnicity, finding her husband bewitched by his older mistress, Dianne de Poitiers, and thus repulsed by her, lonely Catherine finds a surprising ally in her husband’s father, the king.

Barren for years, her future appears uncertain until fate and a despised woman intervene. Children follow and using her wisdom, increasing diplomatic skills and intuition, Catherine works hard to secure her line and the safety of the throne for her children. A great believer in compromise, she refuses to bend to the will of the powerful, very Catholic and manipulative Guise family who wish to not only oust all Hugenots from France, but destroy heresy no matter what it takes and secure their own position as faux rulers as well.

When Catherine forms a relationship with the Hugenot leader, Coligny, peace between the religious factions seems within reach, but she does not account for the ruthlessness of those who oppose not only her, but Protestantism. Pushed and pulled in all directions, if Catherine is to save not only her children, but also the people of France from destruction, she may yet have to sacrifice something very important to her – her ideals.

From Italy to the palaces of Paris, the Loire valley and so many other locations, this is a sweeping story of one woman’s determination, courage and resolve. Gortner really does rewrite history in this book (and in his author notes, he explains some of the ways in which he steered from established fact and why) and, in doing so, presents the reader with a marvellous story or power, politics, sacrifice and passion. The version of Catherine he gives us is so very different from how she is remembered and really does offer food for thought. Providing a context for all her decisions, giving the reader even fictitious insight into her as a ruler, regent, mother, wife, and lover, is persuasive and instead of the two-dimensional woman hell-bent on self-aggrandisement and power at any cost, we’re given a compassionate and rich portrait of an extraordinary woman who suffers for her beliefs, for the love she bears her children and adopted country.

A terrific novel for lovers of history, especially those fascinated by the Tudor period but wanting to see it from a different perspective (Catherine’s rule coincided with the end of Henry VIII’s reign and then survived well into Elizabeth I’s – in fact, it was her two sons that were, at separate times, offered as possible suitors to the Virgin Queen), and for anyone after a great read.


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Book Review: The Tudor Secret by C.W. Gortner


The Tudor Secret (The Spymaster Chronicles, #1)

This was a strange and compelling book. When I first started reading it, I almost cast it aside as I was annoyed by what I felt was being asked of the reader: that is, too great a leap of faith when it came to the historical facts upon which Gortner drew to craft his tale. But, as the story of Brendan Prescott, an orphan raised by the powerful and influential Dudley family and elevated to personal servant of none other than a young Robert Dudley just before the death of Edward VI, progressed, I became caught up in the plot and action and found it hard to put down.

Prescott, prior to his new role was a simple stable boy who yearns for the woman who raised him but died before he reached his teens, is sent to London to serve his new master and thrust into court politic. He finds himself not merely at the centre of a huge conspiracy to alter the royal succession, but also an unwitting pawn in a deadly game that’s been played between the leading noble houses for years.

Employed by Robert Cecil to spy on his behalf and for the benefit of the young Princess Elizabeth, Brendan doesn’t trust Cecil or his dark-robed henchman, the dangerous Francis Walsingham who, rather than an ally, seems more like the assassin rumours declare. Certainly, as it becomes evident that Brendan isn’t who he thinks he is, his mission becomes as much focussed on finding out his real identity – an identity others are using not only against him, but against those they would see brought down – as it is protecting the princess. Running towards trouble and finding it at every turn, Brendan also has his loyalty tested, discovers love, friendship and how the eyes and heart can deceive in extraordinarily painful ways.

Against a backdrop of religious and political upheaval, Brendan’s inculcation into Cecil’s spy network and his own story are interwoven. The story gallops and I couldn’t read fast enough to discover what would happen. My initial misgivings about what I thought was a misuse of history were laid to rest as Gortner cleverly mingles fact and fiction, but not in a way that stretches the reader’s faith (as I’d first feared), but in order to create an utterly satisfying narrative. Will be reading the rest in the series for sure.

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