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 King’s Touch by Jude Morgan

The K222771ing’s Touch by Jude Morgan is a beautifully written book. Ostensibly the story of James, the eldest illegitimate child of Charles II, who later becomes the Duke of Monmouth, it’s also about an indulgent and indulged king who was more politicallycanny than he is often given credit. It’s also about personal and public sacrifice and its hefty cost.

Through young James, or Jemmy’s, eyes, the reader is invited to live through the fraught years of Charles Stuart’s’ exile on the continent. We’re also drawn into Jemmy’s early peripatetic years, as his mother, the fallen woman, Lucy Walter, drags her son from city to city in a desperate effort to reclaim the one man she says she loves but who appears to have discarded her – the throneless, Charles. Lucy’s descent into poverty as well as the poor decisions she makes regarding men and actions, naturally affects her son and daughter and it’s only when Charles “rescues” his child, young Jemmy, depositing him with his exiled mother and younger sister, that Jemmy’s life begins to transform.

When Charles is invited to return to England in 1660 and is crowned monarch, it’s not long before his family, including Jemmy, follow. From poor urchin to indulged bastard son of the “merry monarch” we follow Jemmy’s life and travails as he learns just what it means to be a part of this newly formed court. Yearning for his father’s affection, and attention, he is slow to grasp an understanding of his place in this new, decadent world. Morgan is at pains to portray this as an almost deliberate naivety, a stubborn refusal to abandon the dreams of childhood and a belief in good. She also juxtaposes Jemmy’s faith in others, in the world, against Charles’ more cynical one – a view born of his experiences.

As much a pawn as a beloved child who becomes a needy but loving man, Jemmy’s relationship with is father is wonderfully explored, as are the complexities of the emotional baggage both men carry.

Against the backdrop of political and religious strife and intrigue, endless wars and the scheming of ambitious women and men, never mind the sensual hedonism of the Restoration court with all its bawdy affectations and superficial promises, this is a marvellous story of familial love, passion, loathing, forgiveness, repentance and revenge.

The dialogue is rich and laden with meaning; the language so beautifully and readably crafted – I could not only imagine those involved (most often, Charles and his son) but relished the turns of phrase (some plucked straight from history) and the feelings they evoked. The settings are gorgeously and accurately drawn – as is the history – and the psychological and political games carefully constructed. It’s easy to see how those involved with the Stuart dynasty rose or fell according to their ability to aid, counter or manipulate the plots and cunning of others.

But at the heart of this novel is one needy man and the father who, though he alternately embraces his son and in doing so hints at a destiny not his to bestow, also rejects him and what he represents. It’s a tale of how family and even love must be sacrificed at the altar of politics and a greater good while also questioning why this must be so.

A magnificent read for anyone fascinated with the Stuart dynasty and the major players throughout the turbulent years of the Restoration or for those interested in a portrait of fathers, sons and families who aren’t free to love where and when they please.


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

The third book in the thrilling Spymaster Chronicles series, The Tudor Vendetta, has, so far, been the one I’ve most enjoyed and that’s saying something because the other two were terrific as well.

The Tudor Vendetta (The Spymaster Chronicles, #3)Opening when Elizabeth takes the throne in 1558, after her Catholic half-sister, “Bloody Mary” has died, it sees Brendan Prescott, our bastard Tudor and spy, summoned home to England.

No longer an ingénue in this game of thrones, Brendan has been trained by none other than Francis Walsingham, the man who would later rise to become Elizabeth’s secretary (but, at this stage of the novel functions more like a shady Q or rival agent from the Bond movies/novels – and that’s a good thing!).

Arriving back in England, Brendan not only has to try and find the perpetrator behind another ghastly plot against the queen, but also face his own demons and the mess he left his personal life in when he was forced to flee England at the end of the last novel.

Clearing up others’ strife is Brendan’s strong suite, not his own and, since he is no longer master of his own destiny, it’s difficult for him to reconcile with his beloved, Kate, so misunderstanding and mis-steps abound. When Elizabeth’s favourite lady-in-waiting, Lady Parry goes missing, Brendan is asked – no, ordered (like he has a choice!) – to find her.

Sent to a desolate, fog-bound mansion in the north of the country, armed with his own wits as well as a series of half-truths from his employer, and the deadly enmity of Sir Robert Dudley, Brendan tries hard to learn Lady Parry’s fate. Once again, however, as the plot thickens and intrigues deepen, Brendan finds not only his own life in jeopardy, but also that of the woman he has vowed he would die to protect.

Only this time, it looks as if Brendan’s vow is about to be seriously tested for it’s clear there’s a vendetta not only against him, but against Her Majesty as well.

Steeped in history, bringing the characters and era to wonderful life, Gortner has written a page-turner that’s part Gothic-mystery, part spy novel and romance as well as a race against time narrative that positively flies. I love the way Gortner weaves his fiction through known fact and takes advantage of gaps and omissions in historical sources and well-known figures’ lives to be inventive and create a superb read. An example is the way he manipulates Francis’ Walsingham’s story. Though Walsingham did return from self-imposed exile to England when Elizabeth was back on the throne, biographers don’t believe he was part of any “spy network” until much later. Certainly, he didn’t emerge has “head” of one until at least the very late 1570s, probably 1580 on. But I loved that Gortner positioned him as a (sinister) secondary player and as someone already well known to Cecil (which he was, but likely not in that sense) and versed in the arts of intelligencing.

Though this would make an excellent finale to a great trilogy, I am really hoping there are more Brendan Prescott books to follow, after all, its early days in Elizabeth’s reign, and so much more to happen – isn’t there, please C.W. Gortner?

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