Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Book review/giveaway: The Beloved Dead, by Tony Hays

Tony Hays’s third Arthurian mystery, set in a bleak 5th-century Britain, is the most gripping entry yet in an already strong series.

Having lost one arm in battle, Malgwyn ap Cuneglas has reinvented himself as King Arthur’s scribe and advisor. The Beloved Dead is set at a time he calls “a season of ill omens, among the worst of my long life.” Malgwyn is an honorable man, loyal to the Rigotamos and his vision of a united kingdom, though he remains cynical about Arthur’s Christian faith – and most everything else besides. He’s also close to his cousin, Guinevere, the former nun whom Arthur loves but says he cannot marry.

And so Malgwyn chafes at two tasks he considers shameful and unwise: accompanying Arthur as he removes the head of Bran, an icon sacred to the Druids, from its burial spot near Londinium; and arranging a marriage between Arthur and Gwyneira, the teenage daughter of a Christian nobleman with whom Arthur wants an alliance.

The roads Malgwyn is asked to follow are marked by peril and death. Along both of his journeys, young women are found killed, brutalized in a horrific manner. The motive is puzzling – the girls and their families had no enemies – which makes Malgwyn ponder a possible conspiracy to shake up Arthur’s reign. Or has Arthur tempted fate by stealing a Druid relic? Remembering his own wife’s death at the hands of the Saxons, Malgwyn is affected by the killings; he grieves for the innocent lives lost and wishes he had time to investigate. His assignment of bringing Gwyneira south to marry Arthur forces him to set his feelings aside.

Fans of Arthurian legend will appreciate how Hays reinterprets oft-told stories from the canon and deftly works them into a mystery plotline. There is a large cast of characters, some familiar and some new, who have discrete and memorable personalities. Women play a greater role here than in books one and two. Guinevere is a standout heroine; courageous even in the face of abandonment and danger, she deserves a place as Arthur’s consort. Succinct recaps of events from The Killing Way and The Divine Sacrifice are included, but because of possible spoilers, anyone intent on reading those novels should do so first.

Although Latin is rarely spoken, and the Romans themselves are long gone, Arthur’s plan for consolidating and governing his realm has a decidedly Roman bent to it. Fifth-century Britain is depicted as a land in transition, with Christian, Roman, and pagan influences both warring and intermingling. The dark uncertainty of the atmosphere adds to the growing tension.

By book three, Malgwyn has started to settle down.  He’s cut out the drinking (mostly), has found a good woman (his brother’s widow, Ygerne), and has formed a strong relationship with his daughter. In fact, he has become a seasoned diplomat – he’d probably hate that description – and worries that he’s lost his edge. He hasn’t. In fact, his sensitivity to the political and emotional minefields around him makes him a force to be reckoned with. Though determined to serve justice even when it pains him, he’s not immune to stress. He’s also amusingly baffled when it comes to women. Female readers in particular will discern the reasons for Ygerne’s anger long before he does.

As Malgwyn proceeds with fierce resolve along the path to finding a serial killer, he remains true to himself, yet his crime-solving abilities cleverly defy readers’ expectations. Most importantly, he knows that each successive murder is more than a plot twist or opportunity to prove himself – rather, each is a tragedy that should have been prevented. So while the aptly-titled The Beloved Dead has an optimistic and satisfying ending, as all good mysteries do, it would be hard to call it a truly happy one.


The Beloved Dead was published on March 29th by Forge at $25.99 in hardcover ($29.99 in Canada, £18.99 UK). See my earlier interview with Tony Hays for details on the first two books, The Killing Way and The Divine Sacrifice, as well as background on the writing process.  See also the author's website at

Interested in a copy of The Beloved Dead?  Or how about all three in the series?  Thanks to Forge, we have a giveaway opportunity... to win the three-book set, please leave a comment on this post.  Deadline for entry is April 8th.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Contest winner, and a note on longevity

Things have been quiet here this past week:  I've been getting over a cold (one that lasted close to three months and is finally almost gone); I've been taking care of another stray kitten that's somehow worked her way into our house; and I've had so many other deadlines that I haven't felt much like posting.

But without further delay, the winner of Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's An Embarrassment of Riches is Ashley.  Congratulations - I'll be in touch via email, and I hope you'll enjoy the book!

(There were two anonymous entries, which I was unable to count, for obvious reasons... but I appreciate your stopping by!)

Also, on another personal note, last Friday was my 5th blogiversary.  Originally I had plans to do a bigger celebration for it, maybe a contest or something, but then Real Life got in the way.  So I'll simply say thanks to all of you for reading my site, commenting, linking, even lurking.  Getting to set down my thoughts about books and having people read and react to what I write - what blogger could ask for more than that?

Monday, March 21, 2011

Bestselling historical novels of 2010

Publishers Weekly has just come out with its list of the hottest selling novels in the US from the previous year, so it's time to look at which historical novels made the cut.  This is my 4th annual post on the subject (see writeups from 2009, 2008, and 2007), and per my blog stats, these posts are pretty popular.  Everyone wants to know what a bestselling historical novel looks like, or maybe is wondering if such a thing exists. 

PW's original list is here - from their annual Facts & Figures coverage - and all I'm doing is summarizing and commenting on the historical novels on it.  I'd recommend visiting the original article by Daisy Maryles for the comprehensive stats as well as info on changing trends.

Earlier this year, PW asked publishers to submit sales figures on titles that sold more than 100,000 copies during 2010. Only print sales of new books counted -- those shipped and billed. Returns were supposedly taken into account.

Among the top 15 hardcover fiction bestsellers we have:

#3 - Kathryn Stockett, The Help (1,317,397 copies)
#12 - Ken Follett, Fall of Giants (621,562 copies)

It's notable that The Help was #3 on last year's chart as well, with 1,104,617 copies sold in '09.  I still own a copy and still haven't read it!  Blame the publishers/authors/editors/bloggers who keep urging new books on me.  The rest of the top 15 is dominated by Stieg Larsson, a predictable crop of thrillers (Grisham, Patricia Cornwell, James Patterson and his coauthors), plus Nicholas Sparks, a couple of mysteries, and Franzen's Freedom.

Others that sold more than 100,000 copies, in descending order of sales:

Seth Grahame-Smith, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (ok, I'm not sure if this really counts as a historical novel, but with eye-opening sales of 230K+, it's worth mentioning)
Danielle Steel, Legacy
Karl Marlantes, Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War
Francine Rivers, Her Mother's Hope
Philippa Gregory, The Red Queen
Francine Rivers, Her Daughter's Dream (sequel to Her Mother's Hope)
Elizabeth Kostova, The Swan Thieves
Francine Rivers, Redeeming Love (reprint of a classic)
David Mitchell, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
Catherine Coulter, The Valcourt Heiress
Newt Gingrich and William R. Fortschen, Valley Forge
Sarah Blake, The Postmistress

...And that's it.  This isn't to say that there aren't other definitions of "bestseller" we could use, but when you look at sales of this magnitude, this is what we have.  The two debut novels on the list are the Stockett and Marlantes.  With the exception of the Sarah Blake, the remainder are subsequent novels by authors whose previous books were bestsellers.  I've read Fall of Giants, Red Queen, and Thousand Autumns and enjoyed all three, especially the first and last.  Which ones have you read?

On the trade paperback side, heavy hitters were the reliable sales of Robert Goolrick's A Reliable Wife (658,000 copies!); Jeannette Walls' Half-Broke Horses; Kate Morton's The Forgotten Garden; Sara Gruen's perennial favorite Water for Elephants; the Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie book; more Philippa Gregory, Lisa See, and Francine Rivers; and Leila Meacham's Roses.  Also, for the first time, PW has put together a list of e-book bestsellers, and some historicals did quite well.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Book review: The Midwife of Venice, by Roberta Rich

Historical novels can open windows onto the past, shedding light on parts of society previously hidden from view. Already segregated because of their religion, and with their influence kept to the private sphere, the lives of Jewish women in Renaissance Venice were more concealed than many.

In her debut novel, Roberta Rich introduces a unique heroine, and her wry humour leavens a serious subject. Not wholly an intense social drama or an over-the-top adventure, The Midwife of Venice is a quirky yet diverting blend of both.

The year is 1575. Word about Hannah Levi's expert skills in midwifery has spread even to the Venetian nobility, which prompts a late-night visit to her apartment in the Ghetto Nuovo. The Conte di Padovani's wife, Lucia, lies close to death in childbirth, and he desperately needs Hannah's help.

Hannah's decision to accompany the Conte to his palazzo goes against her rabbi's wishes as well as a papal edict. Jews are forbidden to treat Christian patients, and if either the mother or the child dies, she will bring the wrath of Christian Venice down on everyone in the ghetto. And should anyone in the Conte's household discover her birthing spoons, the forbidden tool she invented to assist with deliveries, she could be charged with witchcraft.

In return for this high-risk endeavour, she strikes a bargain: As payment, she asks for enough money to rescue her husband. While on a trading voyage, Isaac was captured by mercenaries in the pay of the Knights of St. John, men “reeking of drink and sweat and religion,” and languishes in prison on Malta.

So begins a lively tale involving love, blackmail, family, murder, plague, intercultural compassion, dramatic last-minute rescues and some very creative disguises. There is a lot going on, and the brisk pacing ensures ever-changing action.

Rich skips back and forth between the couple's stories, demonstrating her talent in writing cliffhanger endings. Hannah helps Lucia give birth to a healthy son, Matteo, then safeguards the infant from his wicked uncles in his parents' absence. Isaac is sold into slavery, passed from owner to owner, keeping himself alive through his writing skills and quick wit. He and Hannah hold fast to their faith and mutual devotion, even at great risk to themselves.

By definition, novels set in Venice must exude atmosphere, and this one positively drips with it. Rather than a glittering city overflowing with sensual decadence, readers are presented with a darker vision of greasy canal waters, pavements slick with refuse and a luxuriously appointed bedchamber “scented with the coppery odour of blood.” The traumatic birth scene holds nothing back. Through the experiences of Hannah, Lucia and Jessica – Hannah's estranged sister, a courtesan and New Christian – Rich capably depicts the strength of women and the precariousness of their lives, regardless of status or religion. She also makes clear the plight of the Jews, forced to make their way in a world that views them with suspicion and hatred.

The characters are broadly drawn, and the plot can be as porous as the spongy ground near the Grand Canal. Why doesn't the Conte realize that his brothers are a threat to Matteo? If the Knights of St. John intend to hold Isaac for ransom, why sell him into a situation sure to kill him?

For those looking for a meaty historical novel that leaves no loose ends, this may not be the best book to choose. But if you might like seeing Jewish folklore and Mediterranean history wrapped into a rousing story, suspend your disbelief for a time and follow along with Hannah and Isaac as they fight their way back to one another.


Roberta Rich's The Midwife of Venice was published by Doubleday Canada in February at $22.95 Canadian (trade pb, 329pp).  The novel was also recently sold to Simon & Schuster/Gallery in the US.  This review was first published in The Globe and Mail (Toronto) on Feb 25th. I've left in the Canadian spelling!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Book review: Deliverance from Evil, by Frances Hill

The Salem witch trials have become such a fixture in American history that most readers will already know the who, what, when, and where about the subject. What's missing is the how and the why. In this fictional dramatization by Frances Hill, a British historian who has written several nonfiction books about the events, the cause isn’t mass hysteria or ergot poisoning, as others have posited, but vengeance and simple malice.

The novel opens not in Massachusetts proper but on the Maine frontier, a “devilish region full of Baptists and Quakers,” a place where departures from Puritan doctrine are tolerated but whose villages are being burned and destroyed in Indian raids. George Burroughs, the Harvard-educated former pastor of Salem Village and the beloved father of seven children, barely escapes the attack on the settlement at York with a young woman, Mary Cheever, who loses her father to the violence.

Once they reach Wells, the surviving settlers regroup and decide whether to move back south for safety. Meanwhile, in Salem Village, a children’s fortune-telling game inspired by “slave magic” spirals out of control, with young Betty Parris’s terrified fits and nightmares motivating others less innocent to pretend the same. Village leader Thomas Putnam sees his chance to even old scores, inciting the “afflicted girls” to point fingers and claim they’re being harmed by witches. Grudges over lost inheritances, land disputes, long-standing jealousies… all of these things fuel Putnam’s ruthless plan to take revenge on those who wronged him and his supporters.

Women (and a few men) accused by the girls of devilish harm are seized, examined, and imprisoned. The witch-hunting frenzy so obsesses the people that even pious, respected matrons like elderly Rebecca Nurse are charged based on “spectral evidence.” The long arm of the law, such as it is, even extends north to George Burroughs, whose money disputes with the men of Salem Village still fester, years after his departure.

The plot proceeds methodically, laying out events from January through August of 1692 as they occurred, and the deliberate pacing takes a while to catch at the emotions. The scope is vast, moving from the Putnam household to Judge Hathorne’s merciless courtroom to the Burroughs clan in Maine. While the events are terrifying, it’s difficult at first to feel attachment to the characters, most of whom are cruel, cold-hearted people. Eventually the focus zooms in more closely on George and Mary, who fall in love and wed, and they emerge as worthy protagonists. Mary’s hopeless quest to convince Salem’s leaders of her husband’s lack of guilt is commendable yet heartbreaking.

Hill’s expertise enhances her account; nearly all of the characters are based in history. Most importantly, her interpretation is convincing, providing food for thought on how a deadly mob mentality can overtake reason and cause irreparable harm. The executions of blameless victims could have been prevented at several steps along the way, but those in charge ensured that they weren’t. In contrast to the frontier wilderness of Maine and Massachusetts, which is vividly described, the village setting is accurate but utilitarian, serving merely as background for the tragedies on center stage.

Although it takes time to gain traction, this chilling account, unflinching in its telling, is a quality addition to the collection of novels about the injustice done at Salem.

Deliverance from Evil was published by Overlook in March in hardcover at $25.95, or $32.50 in Canada (320pp, including two-page author’s note). The UK publisher is Duckworth (£6.99, paperback, forthcoming in June).

Saturday, March 12, 2011

An interview with Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, author of An Embarrassment of Riches - plus giveaway

Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's An Embarrassment of Riches, the newest volume of her Saint-Germain cycle of historical fantasy novels, takes place in the Kingdom of Bohemia in 1269-70.  The Count of St. Germain, also known as Rakoczy Ferancsi, has been forced into exile by Bela, King of Hungary, and obeys his will to secure the safety of his fiefdom's people.

Sent to Prague to create jewels for Bela's granddaughter, Queen Kunigunde of Bohemia, while her husband is off fighting to expand his realm, Rakoczy hopes to live a quiet life at his mansion.  Unfortunately, he finds himself the object of unwanted attention.  His obvious wealth, good looks, and bachelor status attract the notice of several of Kunigunde's lonely, ambitious ladies-in-waiting, who seek to manipulate him to their own ends. 

This is the first entry I've read in Yarbro's long-running series this is the 24th volume and it won't be the last.  Traditional vampire stories tend not to entice me (did I mention that St. Germain was a vampire?) but I couldn't resist picking up a book set in such an intriguing locale as medieval Prague. For readers who aren't especially attracted by blood, however, there's no reason to be concerned.  The fearsome aspect of the novel derives not from St. Germain's actions but from the milieu where he finds himself.

In An Embarrassment of Riches, Rakoczy faces threats from Rozsa of Borzod, a noblewoman who blackmails him into a sexual liaison; from powerful churchmen wary of his alchemical skills; and from King Bela, whose spies will denounce him if he violates his terms of exile.  The richly described setting of 13th-century Bohemia comes alive with its elegance and dark undercurrents of danger, and St. Germain is a cultured and compelling hero.  Each of the books can stand alone, so if you find yourself yearning to explore settings as diverse as 6th-century Shanghai, 14th-century India, or Peter the Great's Russia, give this series a try.  The author's website has a historical chronology as well as background on St. Germain himself and details on how she's managed to subvert the vampire stereotype.

There's a giveaway opportunity at the end, so please read on...

What drew you into setting your new novel in 13th-century Bohemia?

It was a place I'd written relatively little about, and it wasn't like the highly romanticized view of Medieval France and England so often found in historical fiction.

Interspersed within the main storyline, you include the text of many letters sent to parties mentioned in the book, listing who the scribe was, the language, medium, the time took it time the letters to arrive, and even whether they arrived at all. How did you decide upon using this technique in your novels?

I used it in Hotel Transylvania as a means of avoiding the dreaded expository lump. I found it provided a great way to build characters as well, and it's been in every Saint-Germain book since.

Many historical writers – some at their editors' suggestions – use terms more familiar to English-speaking readers when it comes to lesser known settings, but refreshingly, you've made a point of using those found in contemporary records: Konig and Konige (for King and Queen), Comes (Count), Episcopus (Bishop), even Praha (Prague), etc. How do you strike a balance between the desire for authenticity and accessibility to your readers?

Not all the editors who have worked on the series over the years have been enchanted with my determination to use as much period language as possible, but I feel it is a good way to keep the reader in the period and in the story. In An Embarrassment of Riches this was made more complicated than in some other novels in the series because of the constant intermix of Bohemian, German, and Hungarian. By opting for mainly Bohemian usage, I hoped to keep the sense of place a strong element in the book.

The outfits worn by the characters are vividly presented; when they appear in a scene, you describe the color and fabric of their bleihaut, chainse, braccae, etc. Do you take a special interest in historical costume?

Yes, I do, for several reasons: clothes tend to be a statement of class in the Medieval world – and still is, to some degree. Also, everyone reading knows about clothes, so connecting with the experience with the characters through clothes seems to be easier for most readers than trying to connect through table utensils or window coverings. Most of the time I use modern terminology for things like horse gear, furniture, and household equipment because if I didn't, I'd have to explain so much, the action would slow and the reader wouldn't stay hooked in the story.

I found it fascinating that St. Germain's wealth and attractiveness to women caused more problems for him at court than his ability to create jewels via alchemical means. Could you describe more about the beliefs in alchemy at the time?

That's a topic that could fill several volumes, but to thumbnail it – alchemy is the ancestor of chemistry (it's in the name: Alchemy means the Egyptian study, and so does chemistry, Khem being the ancient Egyptian name for Egypt), but over time it also became tangential to metallurgy. Alchemy was concerned with transformation – of base metals to noble ones: gold, silver, and electrum; the transformation of earth into jewels; the transformation of moldy bread to the sovereign remedy; and the transformation of an ordinary man or woman into something more. Since the historical Comte de Saint-Germain was an alchemist, it was irresistible to include his study of alchemy in his fictional character.

The three women who pursue St. Germain – Rozsa, Imbolya, and Iliska – are different personality-wise and in terms of how they emotionally respond to him. Is there any whose character you enjoyed writing more than the others?

When I'm working on a book, I love them all. Ask me in a year or two, and maybe I can tell you more about them. I can say that Rozsa was the most exhausting to write about of the three.

In a past interview I saw on your website (from Stealth, from 2000), you mentioned that St. Germain prefers to take female lovers, because they're less apt to confuse power and sex. In An Embarrassment of Riches, I wouldn’t say Konige Kunigunde’s ladies in waiting confuse the two exactly, but they manipulate one to obtain the other, and it gets him in trouble. What inspired you to choose this as one of the themes for this book?

The tendency to think of Medieval noblewomen as having more rights and privileges than they did has been a mainstay of historical fiction for decades, when in fact, even noblewomen were little more than property in most of the contexts of their lives. One of the few places they had a bit of liberty was a Queen's Court, where the Queen had some real authority – in the case of eastern Europe, even the queens were severely constrained in the expression of that autonomy. The two ways women could gain a little leverage in their lives was through sex and position; the three women in this novel each take advantage of it in their own way.

Given the form of nourishment that St. Germain takes, do you find yourself working around writing scenes where it might look odd for him to avoid eating or drinking in public?

In some of the books, yes, in others, no. It all has to do with the attitude of the society in which he finds himself has toward strangers. Occasionally it gets him into trouble, as when he encountered Peter the Great in A Dangerous Climate.

Creating a period mindset is so important in historical fiction of any type. How do you achieve this while keeping St. Germain’s character consistent over a span of two-plus millennia?

Actually, it's four millennia and counting, and, in fact, he does change over time. The way he is in his recollections in Out of the House of Life is different than he is in Midnight Harvest, and not just because he drives cars and uses the telephone. That's an aspect of the character I leave up to him, and so far he's never played me false, though he keeps a lot of secrets. I do tend to treat setting as a tertiary character in the story, and that helps to keep the focus of the period on plumb.


[I don't believe I forgot the pub details earlier, so I'm adding them in...]  An Embarrassment of Riches was published in March by Forge at $29.99/$34.50 in Canada, hardbound, 384pp.  To enter to win a copy, please leave a comment on this post.  Deadline Friday, March 25th.  Good luck!

Monday, March 07, 2011

Bits and pieces

Moon in Leo, Kathleen Herbert's fourth and final novel, has recently been published by Trifolium Books, a company set up by her good friend Connie Jensen.  Last September, I'd reposted a comment which Connie left on my site after seeing a mention about the Georgette Heyer Historical Novel Prize, which Ms. Herbert won in 1983.  Moon in Leo is set not in Anglo-Saxon times but during the Restoration, in northwest England close to the Lake District.  Here's the description:

A vivid and scholarly portrait of England in the reign of Charles II. The joy of the Restoration is a fading memory, and conflicts of land ownership and religious toleration are raging. The story is set on the Furness Peninsula in Northern England, now part of Cumbria, and concerns how ordinary folks survive, live and love in times of political upheaval and social conflict. There is a feisty heroine who keeps an eye on how her very own Restoration bawdy comedy is progressing, a chilling villain, a proto-Darcy hero, and a gallery of characters from real history. This is Kathleen Herbert at her rich best: a book which is intelligent, full of humour and above all, deeply humane.

I'll be doing a more detailed writeup once I have the chance to read it myself.  It's available on Amazon UK and US and from the Book Depository (£11.99, 410pp, trade pb), and you can also read an article from the Cumberland News on how the book came to be published.

Yesterday I saw a review of the book posted on the right, Meg Clothier's The Girl King, and immediately ordered a copy.  It's royalty fiction - still one of my favorite topics - but set in medieval Georgia.  That's the country, not the Peach State. How refreshing!

The protagonist is Tamar of Georgia, the first woman to rule said country in her own right.  I'll link to the Wikipedia article even though I haven't read it; it probably has spoilers.

There are entries about Queen (or King, as she was also known) Tamar in two of my favorite reference books, Vicki Leon's Uppity Women of Medieval Times and Guida M. Jackson's Women Who Ruled.  Any would-be historical novelist in need of a subject should delve through these books for ideas.  Both contain lively biographies of hundreds of strong, powerful women from around the world, many of whose stories have never been told in fiction.  So there's no need to write a novel about Eleanor of Aquitaine unless you have a burning desire to do so.  (And I know some authors do; just sayin'.)   

The Girl King is published by Century (Random House UK) at £12.99.

From the Daily Mail, reviews of three new historical novels: Anthony Quinn's  Half of the Human Race, Stewart Binns's Conquest, and Samuel Black's The Ground is Burning.

There have been many historical novel deals rotating through Publishers Marketplace over the last few weeks.  Here's a sampling of them.

Jean Zimmerman's first novel THE ORPHANMASTER, centered around a serial killer who is preying on young orphans in 1663-64 in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, and starring a fiercely independent 22-year-old Dutch woman who is herself an orphan, and a dashing British spy who becomes her lover, to Paul Slovak at Viking, for publication in Summer 2012, by Betsy Lerner at Dunow, Carlson & Lerner.

Filmmaker Duncan Jepson's ALL THE FLOWERS IN SHANGHAI, about a young Chinese woman caught between tradition and personal desires in 1930s Shanghai, pitched as reminiscent of THE PIANO TEACHER and MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA, to Wendy Lee at Harper, by Marysia Juszczakiewicz at Peony Literary Agency (world).

Oxford classical-historian Harry Sidebottom's THE CASPIAN GATES, in the "Warrior of Rome" series, pitched in the tradition of Patrick O'Brian and Mary Renault, to Alex Clarke at Michael Joseph, in a major deal, in a three-book deal, for publication in 2011, 2012, and 2013, by James Gill at United Agents.

Nelle Davy's OF BLOOD AND DUST, pitched as reimagining I, Claudius in the rural Midwest of the 1930s; the last generation of a farming clan must retrace the family's mottled history to put their legacy to rest, to Krista Stroever at Mira, in a two-book deal, for publication in February 2012, by Beth Davey at Davey Literary & Media (World).

Jennifer McVeigh's THE FEVER TREE, set against the raw backdrop of nineteenth-century diamond fields in Colonial South Africa, its deprivation and beauty alive in equal measure, to Amy Einhorn for Amy Einhorn Books, in a two-book deal, at auction, by Stephanie Cabot of The Gernert Company on behalf of Araminta Whitley at LAW.

Some terrific, underutilized settings there.  And along those lines: this weekend I finished Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's An Embarrassment of Riches, set in 13th-century Bohemia, as a precursor to an interview with the author.  Before that, I found myself glued to Deborah Harkness's A Discovery of Witches, which, I just noticed, has a weird rhyming thing going on with the other title.  Both excellent reads, both with vampires in them, but how they're depicted is very different.  I really don't think I'm developing a taste for blood, but there you have it.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

An interview with Elizabeth Loupas, author of The Second Duchess

The Second Duchess is a book I was eager to read even before it found a publisher, thanks to a note posted by Elizabeth Loupas on an email discussion list several years ago. Fresh off a re-read of "My Last Duchess," I thought the concept behind it was brilliant.  Loupas's tale is much more than a recasting of the themes from Robert Browning's famously enigmatic poem, however.  The Second Duchess situates us in the heart of Renaissance-era Ferrara, a setting fleshed out in lush, decadent detail, and the author delves into the poem's background by imagining the personalities and motivations of its characters, who were all based in history.  She also allows Barbara of Austria, a shadowy figure mentioned at the end of Browning's work, to come into her own as a powerful heroine.

By the time of her wedding day in December of 1565, Barbara has already heard countless rumors that Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara, murdered his beautiful, young first wife, Lucrezia de' Medici.  Nonetheless, by her marriage to Alfonso, Barbara seizes an opportunity to begin a new life away from her brother's rigid imperial court.  Intelligent and curious, though not conventionally attractive, Barbara grows determined to discover the truth behind her predecessor's death despite Alfonso's objections.

As she finds her way through the dangers lurking at court in Ferrara, she establishes a sensual bond with her new husband even as she wonders if the whispers about him are true.  In intervening sections, Lucrezia's childlike and resentful spirit, unable to leave its surroundings, observes Barbara's actions (with occasional catty remarks) and reveals her own feelings about her former life - and toward her former husband.  Dark, romantic, and mysterious, The Second Duchess is a richly detailed historical novel that compels as it keeps you guessing.

I'd like to thank Elizabeth for agreeing to this interview, and for the pleasures of reading her debut novel, which fulfilled my expectations and then some.

Where did you first come across Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess"? Why do you think it's captured your imagination to such a degree?

I don't even remember the first time I read it, it's so much a part of me. It was in high school, possibly even junior high. The odd thing is that I always found the duke fascinating, even while I dutifully wrote school papers about how he was insane and a megalomaniac and callously murdered his beautiful and innocent young wife. It may have been the combination of the precisely elegant voice and the life-or-death power of the Renaissance prince. It was not either the first duchess or the barely-mentioned figure of the second duchess that fascinated me in the beginning: it was the duke.

I appreciated how you gave voice to two women who were of paramount importance to Browning's poem but who were denied the chance to speak for themselves. Whose narrative voice came to you first, Barbara's or Lucrezia's?

Barbara came first. I started the story in a third-person point of view, focused through Barbara's eyes, but found I wanted to get even closer to her, inside her skin. I started over in the first person and it was perfect. Lucrezia--well, Lucrezia just happened. She was not planned at all. At first I thought of using flashbacks to tell her story, but she not only wanted to tell her own story, but to express her opinion of Barbara and what Barbara was doing. That's how she became the immobila.

You write in your author's note that re-fictionalizing material that Browning had himself fictionalized (great way of putting it!) sometimes gave you an eerie feeling. How did you move past that in order to create your story?

When I began I didn't even realize Browning had based his poem on actual historical personages--I thought it was entirely fictional. I had some crazy ideas about the backstory I was going to invent and what was going to happen. But as I read about Browning and the poem itself I realized that these were real people, and deserved better. Browning had taken a few sixteenth-century rumors about Lucrezia de' Medici's death and woven the dramatic tale of the duke stopping her smiles; I started from the beginning with everything I could find about these three people--Alfonso, Barbara and Lucrezia--and wrote my own version of what might have happened, while at the same time trying to strike most of the same notes that Browning struck. The cherries, for example, that figure strongly in the book--Browning described one of the young duchess's pleasures as "...The bough of cherries some officious fool/Broke in the orchard for her...." I simply expanded that.

The lines from the poem that were at the heart of my characterization of Lucrezia are: "...and if she let/Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set/Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse..." So the beautiful young wife was not perfect! She would not let herself be lessoned, and set her wits against his, and made excuses. I loved that. It changed the entire power dynamic of the poem for me.

Did you know from the beginning that you wanted to incorporate a mystery subplot - having Barbara investigate her predecessor's death - as opposed to writing a more straightforward biographical novel?

Yes, I wanted it to be a mystery from the beginning. The story was always intended to address the question: "What did the second wife think of all this?" And so of course the second wife--Barbara--would have to find out what happened to the first wife. For a while I considered allowing Lucrezia to actually communicate with Barbara, but somehow that seemed too pat, like the fictionalized stories where Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots meet. So I made one of the characteristics of the immobila the fact that she cannot communicate with the living in any way.

Alfonso occasionally praises Barbara's political acumen, but because of his arrogance, it's hard to tell if he's being honest or patronizing (or both). I liked how the novel left it ambiguous, but it made me wonder: as the daughter and sister of Habsburg emperors, how exposed would Barbara have been to international affairs and other intrigues at the imperial court?

I think Barbara's political acumen is mostly innate rather than learned. She and her sisters were brought up in a very plain, almost monastic style (and three of her sisters did eventually become nuns) and not much exposed to the court. However, once Barbara arrived in Ferrara she took up the reins of the court there with every appearance of ease. She was well-liked. She managed to maintain excellent personal relations with the pope and at the same time befriend, via correspondence, Alfonso's mother Renee of France, who had been forced to leave Ferrara and return to France because of her Calvinism. So the real Barbara had the sensitivity and tact that makes good politics.

I think Alfonso is being both honest and patronizing. He's intelligent enough to see Barbara's understanding of people and motivations, but arrogant enough (and enough a man of his times) to consider it something rather unusual in a woman.

The lush descriptions you've included provide wonderful illustrations of upper-class life in the Italian Renaissance: from interior design and fashion to cuisine, fine art, dance, women's hairstyles and more. What parts did you enjoy researching the most?

Oh, all of them! I loved the physical objects I came across--I have folders crammed with examples, furniture and tapestries and clothing from museums. The chess set is real... it's in a museum in the Netherlands. Alfonso's poignard d’oreilles is real, and really belonged to Henri II... it's now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (The real one never belonged to Alfonso, although Alfonso and Henri II were cousins and good friends.) Lucrezia's rock crystal flask is real... it's in Topkapi Palace. I did love the food as well, and tried out many of the recipes myself... the pampepato, the ciupeta, the torta di tagliarini. I listened to the music and tried out the dance steps. (Fortunately in private.) I could never choose one favorite.

I see you have a degree in library and information science and used to work as a reference librarian. As a reference librarian myself, I can't resist asking: can you reveal any more about your library career? Do you feel your training came in handy when writing The Second Duchess?

My actual work as a librarian was in what's called a special library, a corporate library. Not much opportunity, I'm afraid, to revel in Renaissance delights. But my training as a librarian was indispensable to my research. It taught me how to find things, how to track down sources, how to choose and combine search terms. Searching is an art unto itself, as elegant and complex as any sixteenth-century dance.


The Second Duchess (isn't the cover gorgeous?) was published by NAL in March at $15.00.  For more information, visit the author's website; her agent, Diana Fox, has also posted the original query and submission letters that led to the novel's publication.