The scarlet contessa by Jeanne Kalogridis

The orphaned Dea is taken into the household of Bona, duchess of Milan, who also cares for the bastard children of her husband. Among those is the young and beautiful teenager Catherina Sforza who dotes on her father. But Duke Gian Galeazzo Sforza has many enemies and he is murdered during a church visit. Dea’s fate is now collided with Catherina as she accompanies her to Rome to her wedding with Girolamo Riario, the pope’s nephew.

After Engeland, renaissance Italy is my second favourite historical setting. I just love all the political intrigues, the art, romances and yes even the bloodshed. Catherina Sforza is by far my most loved character of this period and this is one of the only fictional novels about her life. I also enjoyed two other works from Kalogridis before. ‘I, Mona Lisa’ about Da Vinci and his Lisa (I don’t remember a lot from it) and ‘The devil’s queen’ about Catherine De Medici which I liked a lot. Needless to say, I was looking forward to reading ‘The scarlet contessa’.

However, the novel is told from the fictional perspective of Dea, Catherina’s lady-in-waiting who has a magical gift to read the future via tarot cards. A huge part of the storyline goes to exploring Dea’s background (her parentage, her gifts, her relationship with her husband…) and I was just eagerly waiting until Catherina’s story would really start taking off.

It did at a certain point. After the assassination of her father, she goes to Rome to marry into the forceful Riario family. There, she meets charming Rodrigo Borgia, who will become her arch enemy and also Giuliano Della Rovere, another future pope. When pope Sixtus dies, Catherina and her husband move to their estates of Imola and Forli and there will be a lot of trouble for them. I don’t want go into too much detail about the (complex) politics, but Kalogridis does a great job in making it understandable.

Unfortunately, she has to omit certain things from the story in order to do that. There is no mention of Catherina’s second marriage and a few of her children are also not spoken of. Instead, we again get some more insight in Dea’s gifts and a heavy focus on the Borgias.

I did like this novel, I just believe a less heavy focus on the fantasy part would have worked better. Regarding Catherine De Medici, I liked the magic because it is just part of how we look at her. In this novel, it felt out of place. Catherina Sforza was a formidable woman and commander of her army. Had she been born a man, she would have become a great military leader. In this novel, she turns from a vain young lustful girl into this woman that I admire. And no magic is needed to tell that story in my opinion.

I still need to read Kalogridis’ most famous book ‘The Borgia bride’ which receives higher ratings and is about Sancha of Aragon. If you have read and loved Sarah Dunant’s work about renaissance Italy, Jeanne Kalogridis is your next go to!

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

What’s your favourite novel set in Italy?

The last daughter by Nicola Cornick

Eleven years ago, Serena’s half sister Caitlin disappeared between the old ruins of Minster Lovell Hall. Unfortunately, Serena can’t remember anything from that night. Then suddenly Caitlin’s body is found during archeological research in strange circumstances. Serena travels back to Oxfordshire determined to uncover the truth. In the fifteenth century, Anne Fitzhugh is betrothed to Francis Lovell, a close friend to Richard of Gloucester. She discovers the existence of an ancient old relic, the Lovell lodestar, which is said to have magical powers.

I was happy to get the chance to read ‘The last daughter‘ as it was my introduction to Nicola Cornick’s work. She is known for her dual timeline novels with an interesting historical perspective and a bit of magical or science fiction elements woven into the story.

The novels opens in our century when Serena receives a call from the police while on a visit to her aunt Polly in America. The remains of her missing twin sister have been found, close to the place where Caitlin disappeared all those years ago. Minster Lovell Hall is a medieval manor, where her grandparents lived and Serena and her sister spent their holidays. Her grandfather Dick is suffering from dementia and has moved to an elderly home. Their house has been sold and is now a tourist museum. Serena travels to Lovell Hall to see if she can remember anything from that dreadful night.

The historical timeline is told from Anne Fitzhugh whose mother was a Neville, brother to Richard Neville, earl of Warwick and kingmaker. Her parents become involved in the rebellion against Edward IV and Anne is married to Francis Lovell, one of Warwicks wardens. Francis is a close friend to Richard of York, the king’s younger brother. As you can tell, we’re in the middle of the Wars of the Roses so Anne and Francis will be in much trouble.

The whole mystery surrounds around Minster Lovell Hall, Francis’ family home. It is said it contains a so called ‘lodestar’ that can make you fall through time. We learn about the story of the mistletoe bride who disappeared on her wedding night and of course Francis Lovell himself vanishes after the battle of Stoke field.

I did like both perspectives, but I think I enjoyed Anne’s most. It’s set in one of my favorite periods and I believe Francis Lovell is a great main character to depict the events as he was in the midst of it all as Richard’s closest friend and advisor. However, when the story progresses towards the disappearance of the princes in the Tower, I had my doubts about the plot. In one chapter, Anne and Francis are against the princes, proclaiming them as bastards. In the next, they try to protect them together with Elizabeth Woodville. This felt a bit artificial.

I also enjoyed the magical elements and legends surrounding the lodestar. This is a light read and the focus isn’t really on the history but rather on the mystery surrounding all the disappearances and especially Caitlin’s. I’m sure I’ll pick up one of Cornick’s earlier works now.

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for a copy of this book in return for my honest opinion.

This is book 9 for #20booksofsummer.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Have you read anything by Nicola Cornick?

Cecily by Annie Garthwaite

Cecily Neville is a highbred noblewoman and a distant family member of the weak king Henry VI via her Beaufort mother. She’s married to Richard, earl of York, whose father was executed as a traitor under Henry V because he had a claim to the throne. But the loss of France in the Hundred Years War, the bad choice of his advisors and the inability to provide an heir for the throne makes Henry unpopular with his nobles. Richard and Cecily must choose to stand with him or risk everything (their position, family and life) and start a rebellion.

Cecily Neville is one of those perfect female perspectives to talk about the Wars of the Roses. She experienced the conflict from the beginning to the very end. This makes her a popular main character. I already read about her in ‘Red rose, white rose’ by Joanne Hickson (I loved it!) and recently Anne ‘O Brien published ‘The queen’s rival’ which I haven’t read yet. Annie Garthwaite is a new voice in historical fiction and I was curious to see what she would do with Cecily’s story.

The books opens with the burning of Joan d’Arc. King Henry VI is on the throne and the Wars of the Roses still seem far away. It’s always interesting to discover which starting point an author takes for this complex conflict. It’s certainly so that one of England’s greatest triumphs in the Hundred Years War can be seen as the beginning of the end for England in France.

This also means that two third of the book is set before the first battle and I liked that. I’ve read so many times about the Wars itself that we tend to forget the period before it where the seeds of the conflict are planted. We follow Richard and Cecily to France and Ireland. Learn more about the key advisors around the king that caused unrest. About the different fractions and the difficult family ties. The story really focuses on Henry VI reign and I definitely learned some new things.

We get an insight into the relationship between Cecily and Richard. She bore him twelve children. Seven would survive and make great marriages. Two would become king. Cecily is set as a formidable and highly intelligent woman who is a central character in the political game and a true advisor to her husband. I understand this feministic choice and I do believe that Cecily was a smart and cunning woman. However, this forces Richard into a more passive and weak role. Towards the end, Cecily even loathes him for it. This irritated me a bit.

You also learn about Cecily’s family (her mother, uncle and brother), her relationship with Jacquetta of Luxembourg, Isabel of Burgundy and of course queen Margaret of Anjou. I really appreciated that Garthwaite chose a human Margaret of Anjou which can’t have been easy when you write from the perspective of her enemy. Margaret is so demonized during history, I’m still waiting on a book from her viewpoint (let me know if you know of such a book).

The writing is bit rational and descriptive. For me, it lacked some emotion to really get me involved in the characters. I also would have liked to read from different perspectives. Cecily was so strong a character, that she needed to stay strong even in times of peril. I wasn’t engaged in this book as I was with First of the Tudors (both books cover more or less the same period but from a total different viewpoint).

Still, I would recommend ‘Cecily‘ to every history buff or to people who want to discover the early days of the Wars of the Roses.

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for a copy of this book in return for my honest opinion.

This is book 4 for #20booksofsummer.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

First of the Tudors by Joanna Hickson

Jasper and Edmund Tudor are half brothers to king Henry IV, their parents being queen Catherine Of Valois and the Welsh squire Owen Tudor. But Henry is in need of people he can trust and he brings his brothers to court and bestows an earldom on them both. Edmund is also given the wardship of the young heiress Margaret Beaufort and Jasper is tasked with keeping the Welsh border safe. When Edmund marries Margaret, Jasper falls for his Welsh niece Jane (Sian) Hywel. But the death of his brother grants him a lifelong task: keeping his young nephew Henry, with a taint of royal blood, safe. And during the Wars of the Roses that proves quite a challenge.

Joanna Hickson guarantees a solid historical novel with respect for the historical facts. She always intertwines a real historical figure with a fictional perspective. In this book we meet Jasper Tudor and his fictional Welsh niece Jane Hywel. I could immediately relate to Jane, as was the case with Mette in her Catherine of Valois books. I was happily surprised to meet Mette and her family again at the beginning of this book.

This book is about the Wars and the Roses as much as any other set in this time period but it was the first time I read about Jasper Tudor’s involvement. Also, we get a fair insight into the Welsh customs and politics at the time, which I didn’t know a lot about beforehand. It’s weird to think of the Tudors as ‘the winning dynasty’ if you look where they started at the beginning of the conflict.

I in particular liked Jasper’s relationship with his brother the king. The Henry IV in this book felt real. Jasper might be a bit too soft represented at times. He’s the perfect brother, lover, friend…. Betrayed at the battlefield a few times. But he also needed to make hard choices, his allegiance with Warwick is a perfect example of that.

I found the representation of Margaret Beaufort interesting. Compared with other books, were she’s portrayed as a bad and too pious woman, she was more balanced and mysterious in First of the Tudors. I’m curious to see how her character will develop as Hickson’s next novel ‘The Tudor Crown’ will feature Margaret and her son Henry as main characters. But luckily Hickson has promised that we will also see more of Jasper, Jane and their daughters.

The ending might come a bit sudden, but I think it was no bad choice to stop at this particular point during the Wars of The Roses. There will be a lot more trouble ahead for Lancaster and Tudor, and I’m looking forward to read about these events in The Tudor crown. Highly recommended!

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Have you read anything by Joanna Hickson? Any other recommendations about Jasper Tudor?

Winter pilgrims by Toby Clemens

After some dramatic events in the cold winter snow, Catherine and Thomas both have to leave their secluded monastery in Lincoln on the run for Giles Riven, a local lord with the power to crush them. They don’t know each other and have no clue about the current wars going on outside between the houses of Lancaster and York. The dukes of York and Warwick have just lost the last battle and Warwick’s army is gathering in Calais. By accident, Catherine and Thomas end up there and they join the retinue of Sir John Fakenham and his son Richard. This new alliance will lead them to the battlefields of Northampton and Towton.

Winter pilgrims is the first book in the kingmaker series about two commoners during the Wars of the Roses. 15th century England always makes for a nice setting, but this book doesn’t focus on the kings, queens and politics. It’s about a young man and woman trying to survive and make sense of all this. In that way, it reminded of me of Ken Follett’s approach in his Kingsbridge series.

There’s also a huge focus on some famous battles, so that you can compare Clemens to Iggulden or Cornwell. His battle scenes are gruesome, bloody and confusing. Just as any soldier would have experienced it. Especially the brutality and confusion of the battle at Towton comes alive at the end of the novel.

Winter pilgrims opens fast, setting the scene for the rest of the story. The cliches of a monk turning into a warrior and a nun into a nurse is something that should be overlooked. Another cliche is the evil arch enemy that haunts them during the book. This is foremost an adventure novel with nice characters that you get used to very quickly (only to see them murdered afterwards :D), the plot comes in second. And I’m ok with that because the story certainly was entertaining.

It’s also a book clearly written as the first part in a series. A lot of plot lines are started, but aren’t yet touched in much detail in this book. The end is abrupt and leaves some questions unanswered. The writing is in first person tense, and although that’s a bit strange, it didn’t bother me that much. I liked the focus on the common men and the battles. So, I believe I’m curious enough to read the next book ‘Broken faith’.

Clemens is no Cornwell and this novel was maybe a bit too heavy in pages with an unbelievable plot at some times. But if you’re up for an adventure during this fascinating period, Winter pilgrims will provide you with exactly that.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Do you have a favourite book set during the Wars of the Roses? Do you like to read an adventure novel?

Historical novels set in a monastery

Today I want to talk about one of my favorite settings of a historical novel: a monastery. I’m no religious person whatsoever, but I find it really interesting to read about life in religious houses. I don’t know exactly what attracts me to this setting. I believe the fact that inhabitants are isolated from the rest of the world and limited to a certain amount of space contributes to the story, especially when a mystery is involved. The killer needs to be someone from inside—making it all the more exciting. Do you get me?

Also the role that monasteries played during the reformation and especially the dissolution by the likes of Thomas Cromwell is a topic that I have read about a few times. It gives a nice insight in why people would want to live a solitary and contemplated life. Religion was (and still is for some people) an important aspect of everyday life. Most people took their vows willingly, or went to a convent or abbey to repent for their sins, or to seek sanctuary.

Here’s my list of books that I’ve read where a monastery or religious life is involved and plays a key part in the novel.

The name of the rose by Umberto Eco

Probably the most famous novel of the list. It tells the story of Brother William of Baskerville who, together with the novice Adso, arrives at an Italian monastery for a religious debate. But a monk was murdered and William and Adso are charged to find the murderer before the delegates of the pope arrive.

I do want to include this book, but I need to say that I didn’t like reading it at all. I didn’t understand the whole religious conflict thing. The murder mystery was what kept me reading, but I was as lost in the story as William and Adso were in the monastery’s mysterious library.

I gave the story a second chance by watching the excellent Italian mini series (also named The name of the rose). I did enjoy it a lot but I didn’t recognize anything from the book :D. So, I do recommend to give this book a try, as so many love it. But I won’t reread it.

Dissolution (Matthew Shardlake #1) by S.J. Sansom

We move on to what might be my favorite story of this list. One of Thomas Cromwell’s men is murdered at the monastery of Scarnsea. Lawyer Matthew Shardlake is sent to catch the murderer.

This is the start of a historical mystery series about Shardlake during the Tudor era. I’m quite new to this genre of historical novels, but I love this series and I love Matthew. The murder mystery is quite good, although I found out halfway who the killer was, there were still a lot of elements that surprised me.

The Crown by Nancy Bilyeau

Joanna Stafford is a novice in the monastery of Dartford. During the dissolution of the monasteries, she get’s involved in the quest for an ancient relic on behalf of bishop Stephen Gardiner.

What I liked about this book is the fact that you get an insight in how a monastery reacted to the dissolution by Cromwell. You feel their fears and doubts. What I didn’t like was the search for the relic, this gave the story some kind of Dan Brown vibe (and coming from me, I don’t mean that as a compliment). Also the flashback to Joanna’s previous court life didn’t contribute to the story, I would have liked to just stay between the walls of the monastery. I still don’t know if I want to read the second book in the series. Is it getting better?

Sacred hearts by Sarah Dunant

This story is set in 15th century Italy in the convent of Santa Catherina. In that time a lot of noble girls where forced to enter a convent for the sake of their family. And not all of them go willingly. We meet young novice Serafina who is such a girl. With the help of Suora Zuana, the convent’s apothecary, she starts to feel at home a bit.

This is a different story, no murder mystery, but a novel about love and friendship during challenging times. Every nun has its own story and burdens to bare. I enjoyed this book a lot and I definitely want to reread it.

The pillars of the earth by Ken Folett

Everyone will know this book and yes, it’s not only set within a monastery. It’s an epic medieval tale set during the Anarchy in England. But thanks to prior Philip, you get an insight in the workings of an abbey and how a new prior could get selected and the power that it gave him.

Also the building and funding of the new church is an important topic and convinced me to add this must-read novel on this list.

Have you read any of these? Do you know of any other good story about a monastery, convent or abbey? I’m happy to add it to my list!