This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
Published by NAL
Released on April 1, 2014
Florence, Italy during the time of the Medici’s was a fascinating world so I was thrilled to get a chance to read this story set against that backdrop. I loved how the story wove historical fact and fiction so that real people and fictional characters were part of the story. The description of all sorts of details wasn’t tedious, but gave it a rich texture to the plot. I just couldn’t put the book down because I was always wondering what was going to happen next.
The story takes place over many years, but begins at a precipitous time, April 1574, when Grand Duke Cosimo Medici dies and his son, Francesco becomes his successor. Chiara Nerini is the daughter of a bookseller, but the family has gone through a few tragedies and fallen on hard times which has left her, her two little sisters and her Nonna wondering where the next meal is coming from because the booksellers guild will not allow women to run the shop after the death of her father. This leads her to take drastic measures. Her father had been a clandestine alchemist in the cellar of their home behind the store and she has heard that Duke Francesco is fascinated by alchemy and will pay well for the equipment and books. She takes one small piece and waits outside the gates of the Ducal palace for him to ride out.
Chiara’s ploy works way beyond her wildest dreams, but it is always dangerous to come to the attention of the Medicis. Francesco becomes as interested in Chiara as he is in the equipment. He believes in the magic of alchemy and needs Chiara to become the third female component that he feels is necessary to help him finish the steps to making The Philosopher’s Stone. So Chiara is brought in and placed in Isabella Medici’s household and will now be mentored by Ruanno, the mysterious Cornishman and Francesco’s head alchemist.
Francesco is not happy to become the Grand Duke, preferring simple pleasures, though he will not tolerate any attempts to unseat him even if the traitors are from his own family. He is fond of playing working class household with his mistress of several years and working in the laboratory with his two alchemists to formulate The Philosopher’s Stone. He must balance getting an heir with his wife, keeping his volatile mistress in line and watching his back from those who plot to kill him.
Over the years, Chiara is exposed to all the life, intrigue, and experience of the worldly decadent Medici households as she grows to womanhood. She is the secret keeper for so many and must learn to tiptoe circumspectly if she is to avoid the fate of so many. Through it all, she has her own endgame and it now includes the tall dark Ruan.
Ruan has his own goals too. He has worked for so long to gain revenge against the man who had his parents’ killed and took his estate and lands back in Cornwall. He needs the gold he earns from his work for the Grand Duke to fund his effort to gain favor with Queen Elizabeth to support his right to regain his estate and the mine on it. The young bookseller’s daughter intrigues him and he finds himself caring about her welfare. He advises her through the perilous life at court and then later they both share outrage at the loss of people they both care about. This starts them down the long road to avenge the wrongful deaths of their friends, keep from losing their own lives, and gain their freedom from the Medicis.
The plotting on this one was well honed. It was seamless as it combined true life with fictional. It hit the ground running, but still managed to give the background of the story. The characters are three dimensional and it was interesting getting to know them. There are many characters weaving in and out of the story, but it wasn’t tough to keep them straight- though if I had there’s a cast of characters at the back. There are three main narrators- Chiara, Francesco and Ruan. Chiara and Ruan are easy to sympathize with, but Francesco not as much.
Although, that being said, I enjoyed getting inside Francesco Medici’s head and trying to understand his motives. He was cruel and callous, but I was fascinated by his thinking. Chiara’s story line was the most engaging for me as she grew from a tenacious, but young and innocent fifteen year old commoner to a sophisticated court lady who was friend and acquaintance with the movers and shakers of the day. Ruan had a hard life and he reinvented himself three times to arrive at the point where he was coveted as an alchemist by most of the courts in Europe so I was cheering him on to win both his home back and Chiara.
The romance starts tenous as Ruan and Chiara circle each other warily, then to friendship with tendrils of attraction and finally passion. They must keep what they have secret and make stolen moments count when they do get to come together.
All in all, I loved this one from cover to cover. The intrigue, pageantry, romance and violence of Renaissance Italy was told well. There is not a thing I didn’t like and I am definitely going back for the companion book to this story. The author took me back in the past and I was in the story the whole time. Those who love Historical Fiction or heavier Historical Romance should definitely give these a try.
My thanks to Penguin Group for the opportunity to read this book in exchange for my honest review.