Thursday, May 24, 2012


Published 2011 by New American Library (a Division of Penguin Group), ISBN 978-0-451-23282-3, 368 pages

Elizabeth Fitzgerald, called Gera, is the daughter of the Earl of Kildare, a wealthy and powerful family in Ireland who have kept the peace in Ireland for the Tudor throne for 90 years.  The Fitzgeralds are proud of their Geraldine heritage from Italy and Normandy.  The Earl is known as the "uncrowned king of Ireland" and Gera is taught she is an Irish Princess.  Karen Harper's historical fiction novel commences in June, 1533 at the family seat of Maynooth.

Gera enjoys a privileged life as a child with her siblings.  However, the entitlement she receives from birthright is about to unravel.  King Henry VIII has summoned her father to the English court to account for decisions made as Earl of Kildare.  The Fitzgeralds put on brave face and are certain Henry will understand and endorse the Earl's actions.

While the Earl is at the English court, his oldest son from his first marriage, Thomas, will be Deputy of Ireland in his stead.  His foster son, Christopher, is constable of his castle, Maynooth.  Months pass and the Earl does not return.

Thomas gathers a growing band of men.  Gera's mother, sisters and youngest brother depart for England to plead with Henry for the Earl's release from the Tower, leaving behind Gera and her older brother, Gerald.  Within a few months, Gera's mother sends a letter that her father has died in the Tower of London and she is endeavoring to have Gera and Gerald smuggled to her in England.

Thomas rebels against the English occupation of Ireland and Maynooth is soon besieged by English soldiers.  Christopher smuggles Gerald out of Maynooth to depart for France or Italy to prevent the English from capturing the now Earl of Kildare.  Gera is left behind with a loyal family retainer.

Gerald's escape successful, Christopher surrenders Maynooth to the English.  His reward is death by hanging and one-quarter of the garrison is beheaded.  The women of the castle have been hiding in the cellars.  That night, Gera and her servant, sneak out of a tunnel and seek refuge with one of her five paternal uncles.  Gera carries the precious Red Book of Kildare to prevent the English from seizing the most valuable item they desire.

Eventually, Gera, along with her five uncles, are invited to a meeting with the new Deputy of Ireland, who is, ironically, her mother's brother.  Her brother, Thomas, is still in hiding.  Her Irish uncles, believing a truce is in the works, meet with the new Deputy.  The treaty is a ruse.  Her uncles and Gera are shipped off to England the next morning; Gera to join her mother and her uncles to sojourn in the Tower of London.  Eventually, Thomas surrenders in the hopes of a pardon but, instead, is soon incarcerated with his uncles.

Gera's uncles and brother are convicted of treason and sentenced to a treasoner's death, a gruesome hanging, disembowelment and dismemberment.  The Fitzgerald family is attainted, losing their home and all rights to the title of Earl of Kildare.  Gera is devastated and vows she will one day kill the king who decimated her family and return to her beloved Ireland.

Thus begins Gera's journey towards fulfilment of her revenge.  She plots and schemes, all the while at the mercy of the King's whims.  She is brought to Court and must learn how to circumvent undesirable affiliations and cultivate advantageous alliances.

The Irish Princess is the the tale of a bold, determined woman who never waivers from her ultimate goal.  She marries to further her objectives, yet loves another.  Her every action is made with intent of ridding Ireland of Henry VIII, restoring her brother, Gerald, as Earl of Kildare and returning to the land of her birth with the Red Book of Kildare.

"I, Gera Fitzgerald, was going to kill the king. He was dying, but I was going to kill him anyway.....Let him die in peace, some would say, but I would never have peace that way....I knelt upon the mattress, dragging my skirts and the shawl. I crawled closer, my fingers gripping the handle so hard that my entire frame shook as I began to lift it."

This is the first novel by Karen Harper that I've read.  Her indepth and descriptive prose brings to life a well-developed character in Gera.  The reader is able to mourn, rejoice and empathize with Gera.  I will definitely be seeking out other titles by Karen Harper.

I truly enjoyed this novel and recommend it.

Rating:   4 Stars **** (Excellent)

Tuesday, May 22, 2012


Published 2008, Other Press LLC, ISBN-13: 978-1-59051-283-8; ISBN-10:  1-59051-283-9, 236 pages

I flipped through the front pages of The Open Door to see if this was Elizabeth Maguire's debut novel only to discover that Elizabeth passed away in 2006 from ovarian cancer at the age of 47.  For the news announcement click here.  Needless to say, I was shocked and saddened by the early death of a woman from such an insidious disease.

The Open Door was completed before her death and published posthumously.

The protagonist of The Open Door is Constance Fenimore Woolson.  Constance (March 5, 1840 - January 24, 1894) was a pioneer in many ways; she gained acclamation for her writing and she lived her life in an somewhat unconventional manner eschewing society's dictates.

Constance was the 6th child of Charles and Hannah Woolson.  Family tragedies struck with regular frequency with deaths of several of Constance's siblings.

The Open Door commences in 1856 when Constance discovers her love of water while canoeing, a passion she retained the remainder of her life.

After her father's death in 1869, Constance was caregiver to her ill mother for the next decade.  During this time, she wrote for Harper's and enjoyed some financial success.  She wrote travel sketches from her extensive journeys through Southeastern United States, which she dearly misses when she takes ship for England after her mother passes away.

Constance's lifelong desire is to meet Henry James, whom she considers foremost amongst authors.  She often denigrates herself as a second-rate author.  Nevertheless, she is prolific.  Constance's dream comes true; she meets Henry James and forms a friendship.  She considers it a marriage of minds and is appalled at the thought of traditional marriage.

Constance travels extensively through Europe and London.  During this time, she has a love affair with Clarence King, whom she only sees occasionally through the years.  Henry James is present in her life on a frequent basis, even living in the ground floor of her home for a year.

Constance does not give James her heart and body, but she unreservedly shares her mind with him.  She trusts James entirely with her thoughts and ambitions until one day she discovers James has kept a secret from her.  A clandestine matter that doesn't change her opinion of James, but James is unable to reconcile himself to Constance's intimate knowledge.  He reacts by betraying all that is dear to Constance about their relationship in a most public manner.

Physically, Constance suffers from a unusual malady and seeks medical assistance both in London and Europe.  She is subjected to all manner of treatments, but continues to faithfully write. 

Maguire's writing flows and sweeps you along.  The Open Door is an easy read (I read it in one day).  I feel Maguire portrayed a full-developed character in Constance.  I was able to empathize with Constance's struggles - physically, mentally and emotionally.

An excerpt from the Prologue demonstrates Maguire's relaxed style:

"It is largely the tale of a friendship:  a friendship made, and lost.  It is not an exercise in finger-pointing or blame - which you know I abhor.  But I take satisfaction, still, in getting at the truth of what happened.  Which is NOT the same as the way it looked...!"

Most of all, Maguire sparked an interest in a woman whom I had never heard of before.  Good writing does that.  My only reservation, and this is probably my own bias, is the novel is quite short which left me feeling somewhat discontent that I couldn't have spent more time in Constance's world.

If you wish to discover more about this fascinating woman, the Constance Fenimore Woolson Society is a font of information.

RATING:  3 Stars ***(Good)

Saturday, May 12, 2012


After reading Kate Quinn's first historical fiction novel release, Mistress of Rome, Empress of the Seven Hills is the kind of follow up novel I expected.

Empress of the Seven Hills continues the story of Vix and Sabina.  Vix is an all or nothing kind of guy:

"If I'd known the trouble that small-breasted off-limits patrician girl would make for me, I might have choked her to death in the middle of that atrium rather than watch her walk away.";

whereas Sabina is more apt to calculatingly plan her life to gratify her own desires:

"It's time I married, and Hadrian will do as well as anyone. Better even.  He wants to travel, Vix. He says he'll take me to Athens after the wedding, and Thebes, and maybe Egypt. Everywhere."

Vix is the son of Arius the Barbarian.  He has grown from a passionate, unmannered young boy in Mistress of Rome into, well, a passionate unmannered 18 year old who returns to Rome, his center of the world, to seek his fortune and titles himself the "Young Barbarian".

At 13 years old, an astrologer foretold Vix he would lead a legion one day.  Vix is horrified upon learning 25 years of servitude is required for legionaries.  So, he tries his hand at thieving and bodyguarding for Sabina's father first until an encounter with Emperor Trajan causes him to reconsider his options.  That, and the fact Sabina is set on marrying Hadrian and ending their affair.

Vix's admiration for Emperor Trajan develops such that he would perish for Trajan before he would die for his wife and children.  He loves the Emperor unreservedly until Trajan's death in 117 AD.

Sabina extensive travels brings into contact with Vix many years down the road where Vix is stationed as a legionary. Once again, Vix learns the hard way Sabina will follow her own path.

The majority of Empress of the Seven Hills is set during Trajan's lifetime.  It commences in 102 AD. 

Trajan was a capable administrator and military campaigner.  He set up programs to assist poor children in Italy, ensuring they had food and an education.  He improved the infrastructure of Rome with many building projects, road systems and the last aqueduct constructed under the Roman Empire.

Dacia was the first of Trajan's military campaigns and, perhaps, the greatest of all.  Vix, as a legionary, is part of this campaign and spends many years involved in the quest to conquer Dacia.

Trajan 56 AD - 117 AD

Two themes featured predominantly throughout Kate Quinn's Rome series are:  homosexuality and infidelity. 

Respecting homosexuality, "To be an ancient Roman male in good standing meant you initiated penetrating acts of sex. Whether you did this with a female or a male, slave or free, wife or prostitute, made little difference -- as long as you were not on the receiving end, so to speak. [See Catullus XVI.] Certain people were off-limits, though, and among them were free youths." (source:

With regard to infidelity, "In a Roman household sex was in plentiful supply. Except, so it seems, between the actual married couples. The existence of slaves in the house naturally mean that, particularly the men, but also the women (although with the risk of pregnancy and disgrace), had access to sex whenever they so required.

To a Roman sex did not create any kind of bond between two people. It created no obligation between one side and the other.

As far as the law was concerned then sex with slaves was not adulterous. Or at least not for men. And sex with a free-born man or woman was only adultery if they were not doing it for money. Thus, sex with a prostitute did not constitute adultery.... However, adultery with a free-born was a crime, stuprum. And for this there was only one punishment; death.  So as long as one steered clear of committing stuprum, anything was allowed. There was no limits on age and also none on gender." (source:

My research on these particular aspects of ancient Rome culture satisfied me Quinn was not gratuitous in focusing on homosexuality or infidelity.

Empress of the Seven Hills is packed with action, schemes, betrayals and unwavering loyalties. Quinn presents well-rounded characters you can love to love or love to hate. Even if you are knowledgeable about the succession of Roman Emperors, it doesn't detract from the plot. The characters are compelling with their attributes and deficiencies.

Rating: 4 Stars **** (Excellent)

Empress of the Seven Hills is available for purchase in paperback or Kindle on Amazon.  Click here.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012


Opening the first page of Daughters of Rome, I expected to story to begin with Vix, the character Kate Quinn promised would be the focus in the future.  I was somewhat disconcerted, however, to find we had gone back in time, A.D. 58 to be exact, in the first chapter.

Wondering if I had somehow read the series out of order, I checked the publication dates and with Kate Quinn whether I had done so.  No, apparently I had not.

Daughters of Rome was written as a prequel to Mistress of Rome.  My discombobulation continued for a number of chapters until I was able to settle in.  Daughters of Rome featured characters whose destinies were already known from Mistress of Rome.  I'd love to give an example, but it would be a spoiler so I can't.  Just trust me.

The pace of Daughters of Rome was somewhat more sedate, even though it is set during the time known as "The Year of the Four Emperors".

In 69 A.D., after Nero's death, Servius Sulpicius Galba, beat 4 other contenders to Rome and declared himself Emperor.

He made two fatal errors:  he didn't pay his soldiers and chose a heir other than Marcus Salvius Otho, his closest supporter.  He lasted 7 months before he was killed in the streets by Otho's soldiers.

Otho proclaimed himself Emperor and, should you be unlucky enough to be Galba's soldier or supporter, Otho ensured you met a quick death.  This, however, didn't prevent a revolt in Germania by Vitellius.  After a battlefield defeat to Vitelluis's troops, Otho committed suicide.  He was Emperor for 95 days.

Vitellius was a reluctant Emperor for 7 months.  He lived the decadent life until he heard Vespasian and his troops were heading for Rome.  His pleas to the Senate that he be allowed to abdicate were met with horror.  Romans did not plead for mercy, they faced the music.  And that he did, kicking and screaming the whole way.  Vespasian's troops tortured him to death.   As an aside, I was unable to find an image of Vitellius that wasn't obviously a caricature.

Enter Aelius Vespasian.  For almost the next three decades, he and his sons restored stability and peace to the Roman Empire.  This period was known as the Flavian dynasty.

In keeping with the theme of "four", Daughters of Rome focuses on four Cornelii women during this violent and turbulent period:

Cornelia - who has groomed herself and her husband, Piso, for the positions of Empress and Emperor of Rome.  All is well until he perishes with Galba.  Stricken with grief, Cornelia isolates herself from her family and society until one day she comes to a realization....

Marcella - an scheming woman behind a mask who comprehends she can influence history, but wants no part of the consequences.  Marcella never dreams of how her name will be written in the annuals....

Lollia - her grandfather's pawn in the game of marriages.  Lollia has more husbands and divorces than you can count on one hand by the time she is 19 years old.  She endures but, secretly, there is one man she loves.  A man she can never have....

Diana - every man is crazed for Diana, but Diana only has eyes for horses.  There might be one man who could change her focus, but does he...

Daughters of Rome did not grab me the same way Mistress of Rome did.  It was an enjoyable read and there was plenty of conflict and action but, somehow, I felt out of place.  I honestly think it's because of the order in which the novels were written.   So, my recommendation, if you haven't read Mistress of Rome yet, is to read the novels in this sequence:

  • Daughters of Rome
  • Mistress of Rome
  • Empress of the Seven Hills
RATING:  3 Stars *** (Good)
Daughters of Rome is available for purchase in paperback or Kindle on Amazon.  Click here.