Friday, January 27, 2012


Published 2011, St. Martin's Press, ISBN 978-0-312-60453-0 (hardcover) ISBN 978-0-312-60984-9 (trade paperback), 389 pages

The Borgia Betrayal is Sara Poole's second historical fiction novel.  Her preceding novel was "Poison".  She states in the interview at the end of The Borgia Betrayal that each historical novel is a standalone book, but I have to disagree with that.  There were several instances of back referencing to events that occurred in "Poison"; so much that a reader who has not read that book would not have a complete understanding of The Borgia Betrayal.

Francesca is employed by Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI, as his personal poisoner.  Her duties include ensuring the Pope is not poisoned, as well as carrying out orders to use her craft in a deadly fashion on unfortunates discovered plotting the Pope's demise.

Francesca is one of the best characters I have come across.  She is not your typical woman; married, raising a family and taking care of a household.  While she often wishes this is the case, the dark side of her nature prevents this.  And she does have a brutal streak.

Francesca learned her art at the knees of her father, who was subsequently murdered.  She earned her position as Rodrigo Borgia's poisoner after her father's death by proving her abilities.  It is Francesca's mission in life to avenge her father's death.

Aside from revenge, Francesca must be constantly alert for any threat against Pope Alexander VI, his illegitimate sons and daughter.  The Borgias being the Borgias - scheming, ruthless and sibling hatred being a few of their dubious qualities - there is no end of enemies who would be most delighted to remove the Pope from his Papal Chair.  In this second novel, Francesca must foil a plot to do just that.

Her mercurial lover proves to be a complication in her endeavors to prevent the plot from succeeding.   Francesca calls on her Jewish friends, not a well-favored people during the Renaissance, to help her trap a wily enemy with a plan which might end with Francesca's death to be successful.

Friends, when you are the Pope's poisoner, are hard to come by as you are generally regarded as a dangerous individual to be avoided if at all possible.  Therefore, Francesca's friends are few, but loyal.

As I mentioned earlier, Francesca is one of my favorite characters.  She narrates the story as if she is speaking to you regarding the events of the day.  At times, she can be quite humorous, while, at others, she reveals the demons she struggles with.

Sara Poole says there will be more historical fiction novels featuring Francesca in the future.  I, for one, look forward to the next instalment.  I thoroughly enjoyed Poison and The Borgia Betrayal because of their uniqueness.

One caution, read Poison first.  Otherwise, while you can follow the plot of The Borgia Betrayal, you will miss out on certain nuances which enhance the novel.

Rating:   Four Stars **** (Excellent)

Thursday, January 19, 2012


Published 2010, Free Press (a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.), ISBN 978-1-4516-1159-5; ISBN 978-1-4519-1161-8 (ebook), 228 pages.

The Butterfly Cabinet is a short historical fiction novel but, within 228 pages, Bernie McGill has created an engrossing plot with several surprising twists.  The Butterfly Cabinet is inspired by a true story that happened in Ireland in 1892.

The story is told from two points of view:  Firstly, Maddie McGlade, who became a servant to the affluent Ormond family at Oranmore Castle, Ireland, at the age of 14, and, secondly, the mistress of the castle, Harriet Ormond.  Maddie narrates her portion of the novel, while Harriet's diary comprises the second point of view.

Maddie, who became known as Nanny Madd to the grandchildren of Harriet Ormond, is 92 years old and dying in a nursing home which, ironically, is the Oranmore Castle converted into an old age residence.  She tells her story to Anna, Harriet's granddaughter, who, after several years, is ready to hear her family history.  Maddie speaks in the local vernacular which, at times, may be a bit tough to comprehend.

The time period fluctuates between 1968, when Maddie is revealing her recollections to Anna, and Harriet's diary of 1892-1893.

Harriet is a harsh disciplinarian to her 9 children, as well as the servants.  Eventually, her punishment of her only daughter leads to tragic consequences, for which Harriet is jailed for one year.  Pregnant when she is incarcerated, she gives birth to a girl, Anna's mother, who is taken away by her husband within 3 days.  Her diary is written during her imprisonment.

Harriet is an avid butterfly collector and possesses a cabinet in which she collects specimens.  As decades pass, the butterfly cabinet eventually is passed down to Maddie.  Inside she finds a diary, a diary no other person is aware of:  Harriet's.

The Butterfly Cabinet is a tragic story in many ways, yet manages to imbue the characters with unique quirks and thought processes which enables the reader to understand why a character acts in a particular fashion, even though their deeds may be repulsive.

It is also a convoluted history of the intertwining of the lives of servants and masters and mistresses.

It is difficult to write a review of The Butterfly Cabinet without including spoilers, which is the last thing I want to do.  What I really want is for you to pick up this book.  I lost sleep reading this book.  It was difficult to put down.

Rating:  4 stars **** (excellent)

Thursday, January 12, 2012


Published 2011, Touchstone (a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.), ISBN 978-1-4165-6370-9, 978-1-4165-6392-1 (ebook), 435 pages

There is a reason I eagerly anticipate Philippa Gregory's next historical fiction novel and The Lady of the Rivers was well worth the wait.  The Lady of the Rivers is actually a prequel in Gregory's The Cousins' War series, in which The White Queen and The Red Queen have already been published.

The Lady of the Rivers is a combination of legend and history of the life of Jacquetta of Luxembourg.  The legend concerns Jacquetta's ancestry.  She is reputedly a descendant of Melusina, a river goddess, a legend Jacquetta embraces.  It must be remembered the 15th century brimmed with superstitious beliefs and it is not far fetched Jacquetta accepted the legend as true.

On the other side of the coin, accusations of witchcraft abounded.  Convictions were followed by burning at the stake.  Jacquetta possesses the "second sight" or, as we would say, had visions.  Her great-aunt practiced questionable (for the times) fortune-telling.  She bequeaths her skills and implements to Jacquetta upon her death.

The novel opens in 1430 when Joan of Arc has been captured and is a prisoner of Jacquetta's great-uncle.  Joan of Arc's subsequent horrific death remains with Jacquetta throughout her life as a reminder of what happens to those accused of witchcraft.

The Duke of Bedford, John of Lancaster (the 3rd son of King Henry IV of England), who more than merely dabbles in alchemy, seeks Jacquetta's hand in marriage.  While the marriage is of political advantage to the House of Lancaster, his desire is not the marriage bed but, rather, Jacquetta's visions.

She remains a virgin and, while, treated kindly by the English regent of France, forms a major part of the Duke's experiments and unending desire for Jacquetta to tell him the future.  She is set for hours and, sometimes, days on end scrying for the Duke's pleasure.  While Jacquetta does experience some visions, these are limited and vague.

It is a lonely existence for Jacquetta, except for the presence of Richard Woodville, the Duke's squire, who becomes her only friend.  Jacquetta's marriage to the Duke is not long-lived as he passes away a mere two years later.

Shortly after his death, Jacquetta acknowledges to herself her love for Richard Woodville, who has loved her from afar during the Duke's lifetime.  They become lovers and, upon her becoming pregnant with their first child (they would eventually have 14), marry secretly.

They then travel to the English court of King Henry VI to seek forgiveness for their marriage.  As the highest ranking Duchess during her marriage to Bedford, Jacquetta is not permitted to marry without the King's consent.  Clemency comes at a great cost, a fine that exceeds her inheritance and Woodville's capability as a squire to pay.

Thus, they seek to pay their debts and turn their fortunes around.  Jacquetta does this through her friendship with Margaret of Beaufort, King Henry VI's wife, while Woodville becomes an invaluable military commander to the King.

But all is not well with the King and Queen.  Eight years pass before a child is born.  The King has ill health and falls into a baffling coma for many months.  He never regains his health, physically or mentally, and it falls to Queen Margaret to attempt to rule through her husband.  Queen Margaret, is not a popular figure with the people.

To complicate matters, the King's cousin, Richard, Duke of York, has intentions of grasping the crown of England for his own head.  The famous Cousins' War begins.  Both Jacquetta and Richard are intensely loyal to the Queen and King and the House of Lancaster, but are aware the royal couple are susceptible to ill-advised counsellors.

The Lady of the Rivers is written from a first-person point of view, Jacquetta's, and follows the marriage, a rare love match, and careers of Jacquetta and Richard.  The historical novel ends in 1464 when their oldest daughter, Elizabeth, makes her own secret marriage with Richard, King of England, of the House of York, victor of the Cousins' War.  It is a beautiful story of a deep and enduring love and unfailing allegiance to their Queen and King despite serious misgivings.

Historical fiction reviewers are taught they should always find something negative to say about a novel or else the review comes across as a jacket cover.  Honestly, I found no fault with this book and enjoyed it immensely.

Rating:  5 stars ****** (exceptional)

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Lion Wakes (The Kingdom Series) by Robert Low. Historical Fiction Novel Review

HarperCollins, Published 2011; ISBN 978-0-00-742369-9, 439 pages

I picked up Robert Low's historical fiction novel The Lion Wakes at the library and, as per my usual routine, read the first pages to see if it grabbed my attention.  All seemed well and, as an added bonus, this novel is the first in a series about Scotland's tumultuous history in the late 13th century.  I'm a series lover, eagerly anticipating the next installment.

By page 84, I had no clue who anyone was, as characters were not consistently referred to by a specific name, and there was substantial dialogue spoken in old Scots which I could not comprehend.  The author does not assist the reader by translating into English, either through further dialogue or narrative, which left me baffled as to what events were taking place and why.

When I admitted defeat at page 84, the protagonist had somehow sworn allegiance to a lord that was contrary to his familial loyalty and engaged in a battle that I had no clue as to why it was happening.

I have read historical fiction novels before that have used Old English, French and Spanish, but the author always made the reader aware of what had been said through a variety of techniques.  I can understand, maybe, Robert Low wanted to make his historical fiction novel more authentic using an antiquated language, but surely he could have utilized interpretation methods that would not have disrupted the the flow of the novel.

It was only when I was typing out this blog and checked the end of the book to see how many pages it runs that I discovered a glossary and list of characters.  For the life of me, I can't understand why these valuable tools are not placed in the forefront for the reader's reference.  Even with this discovery, I am not even slightly tempted to attempt to continue reading The Lion Wakes.

I consider myself a fairly intelligent and well-read person, so for me to admit defeat with a book generally signifies substandard writing.

Maybe you might like to give The Lion Wakes an opportunity now that you know there is a glossary and list of characters but, for me, this is not a novel I recommend.

Rating:  1 star * (not recommended)