The Devil’s Queen by Jeanne Kalogridis

The Devil's Queen by Jeanne Kalogridis(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)

From Jeanne Kalogridis, the bestselling author of I, Mona Lisa and The Borgia Bride, comes a new novel that tells the passionate story of a queen who loved not wisely . . . but all too well.

Confidante of Nostradamus, scheming mother-in-law to Mary, Queen of Scots, and architect of the bloody St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, Catherine de Medici is one of the most maligned monarchs in history. In her latest historical fiction, Jeanne Kalogridis tells Catherine’s story—that of a tender young girl, destined to be a pawn in Machiavellian games.

Born into one of Florence’s most powerful families, Catherine was soon left a fabulously rich heiress by the early deaths of her parents. Violent conflict rent the city state and she found herself imprisoned and threatened by her family’s enemies before finally being released and married off to the handsome Prince Henry of France.

Overshadowed by her husband’s mistress, the gorgeous, conniving Diane de Poitiers, and unable to bear children, Catherine resorted to the dark arts of sorcery to win Henry’s love and enhance her fertility—for which she would pay a price. Against the lavish and decadent backdrop of the French court, and Catherine’s blood-soaked visions of the future, Kalogridis reveals the great love and desire Catherine bore for her husband, Henry, and her stark determination to keep her sons on the throne.

First off, I have to say that although this is historical fiction because it’s based off of the life of Catherine de Medici, it also has elements of fantasy because Jeanne Kalogridis takes the worst rumours about the queen’s witchcraft and imagines they were real.  It’s not a bad approach and the broad strokes of Caterina’s life are of course accurate but just know that this is not strict historical fiction; there is quite a bit of fantasy.

Many of the characters are memorable but of course Caterina herself is the best.  Her family was out of power when she was an adolescent and before she got married so not only did she experience the glamorous side of life but the rougher side that comes with strife, conflict and civil war.  This early experience with a life-threatening situation leaves a chip on her shoulder that she will carry for the rest of her life.  She knows that it is the most important thing she can do as a queen to produce a son (preferably lots of sons) but when her husband seems disgusted by her and she does not get pregnant she turns to witchcraft and blood magic.  One particular scene is pretty horrific but it’s in keeping with her character: no matter the cost to herself she will have an heir and avert civil war.  She does some pretty horrible things and although she’s not always completely sympathetic, I do feel for Jeanne Kalogridis’ version of her.  Her husband is disgusted by her and goes to his mother figure/mistress Diane de Poitiers, she is not an attractive woman and is marginalized politically, etc.  Caterina had a hard childhood matched by a hard life; she’s far from perfect but you do have to feel for her.

While the plot isn’t exactly fast-paced it is interesting.  I’ve read only one other book about Caterina de Medici so it was nice to learn more about the civil strife that led to her imprisonment in two different nunneries as a preteen and how she was married off to King Henry (then prince).  Once she gets to France there’s a lot of interpersonal conflict between characters but it’s not just drama for the sake of drama.  Jeanne Kalogridis has a purpose to every scene and even though it may not seem like it at the time, every scene moves the plot forward to the horrifying conclusion.  So while The Devil’s Queen is no action/thriller novel, it is very interesting and even if you know about her historical reign as queen and regent, Jeanne Kalogridis may just surprise you with some of the things she speculates at.  Nothing is for certain at court, especially when it comes to the royal family.

I know a little about the period but as you’ve probably guessed I’m no expert.  However, the main events of the story are very much real and Jeanne Kalogridis inserts those little details into everyday life that make you really feel like you’re there.  Personally, I loved that the French all thought Caterina and her Italian entourage were positively barbaric for eating their food with the forks they brought with them.  It’s just those little details that both make you laugh and educate you about how certain cultural practices became the norm in pretty much all of the Western hemisphere.  There are so many more little details like that that you can tell Kalogridis really did her research (particularly about Medieval astrology).  She combines fantasy and history perfectly into this harrowing tale of the complicated life of a complicated woman.

I give this book 5/5 stars.

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