This is a superbly written book, drawing the reader in from the beginning with the first of the three main characters. All of whom have been written in the first person, and alternating in importance from scene to scene. This is a richly and intricately described story, placing the reader firmly in every scene.
Carmelina is an enigma from the very beginning. You find yourself wondering what her true background is. She is obviously an extremely good cook, her conversations, and comparisons are always food based, recipes punctuating her thoughts throughout, but it’s also what lies beneath that which will keep the reader engaged, full of a needing-to-know. We know that she has a temper, which stands her in good stead against those who would bring her down. We are sure that there is something that Carmelina is hiding. She has a secret which she holds close to her heart. We think we know what it is; but as the story progresses, and more information is fed to us, we begin to doubt that we know her full story. She is the most intriguing character in the book. She has a depth that can be admired, and strengths of which to be cautious. We will puzzle over her throughout the story, but always we are only given just enough information about her. Little by little, like the layers of an onion skin, her character is slowly revealed beneath.
Next, Kate Quinn introduces us to Leonello (Little lion), a dwarf, who has an obvious penchant for playing cards, and has a true love of reading the classics. He too has an underlying story which weaves unerringly throughout the book. When Leonello speaks to the reader, you find yourself almost leaning forward to hear everything he has to say, because you feel that to miss it would be an error. Leonello maybe small, but his character is large. His sense of injustice consumes him, though he keeps this to himself. He travels through the story as a constant; his stature slowly growing, until this little man becomes one of the largest of characters.
Finally, we have Giulia Fernese; The Pearl, a very well-known historical figure who was married at eighteen to Orsino Orsini, and almost immediately after becomes the concubine of Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, who later becomes Pope Alexander VI. The love scenes are written very sensitively, with no overblown detail, more, it is left to the imagination through the suggestion of Kate’s evocative descriptions. I think that this works so much better than describing every last intricate detail; it lends elegance to this part of the story. Giulia is admired by many, her hair, so long that it reaches the floor, is coveted as is her beauty. The descriptions of her dresses are exquisite, to the point where you can almost feel between your fingers the materials from which they have been made. We find out that Giulia comfort- eats, excusing it thus: ‘I always eat when I’m happy…’ ‘I always eat when I’m sad…’ and because of this has to periodically what her waistline. Giulia’s character changes the most throughout the story, changing from an innocent to a much more confident woman and mother. Her dynamism comes as a surprise, and leaves you open-mouthed and amazed.
The main characters’ sections in the book are announced with their name, so that you know who is talking to the reader. All the characters are totally absorbing; their personalities are rounded and firmly entrenched in the story. There is a rate of pace which slowly grows, and then settles, and then grows yet again, as Kate Quinn adds another dimension, a murder adds yet another layer which weaves through this story leading the reader into the darkest of times.
The book ends on a cliff-hanger. Who is the Serpent to Giulia’s Pearl? Does this become known as the story unfolds? The Serpent could be one of several, but is it any of them? There is another instalment coming, so maybe this has yet to be revealed, or not.
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Reviewed by Louise Rule