Category: Historical Fiction

The Summer Queen by Elizabeth Chadwick

The Summer Queen by Elizabeth Chadwick(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)

Eleanor of Aquitaine is a 12th century icon who has fascinated readers for 800 years. But the real Eleanor remains elusive.

This stunning novel introduces an Eleanor that all other writers have missed. Based on the most up-to-date research, it is the first novel to show Eleanor beginning her married life at 13.

Overflowing with scandal, passion, triumph and tragedy, Eleanor’s legendary story begins when her beloved father dies in the summer of 1137, and she is made to marry the young prince Louis of France. A week after the marriage she becomes a queen and her life will change beyond recognition . . .

Seeing as I really don’t know much about Eleanor of Aquitaine I’m not qualified to comment on the historical accuracy but I think it’s pretty exciting that The Summer Queen is based on new research into Eleanor’s life, including the fact that she was married at the tender age of 13.  Also within this book, Chadwick uses the way Eleanor herself actually spelled her name: Alienor.  It gives it a more authentic feeling and gives a little more recognition to the real historical figure that’s the centre of this novel.

First off, I was very impressed with the character of Alienor.  She’s a very complicated person, much like the real historical figure.  Her childhood was fairly carefree in Aquitaine but when her father died when she was a pre-teen, life definitely changed for the worst for her.  She initially was enraptured with Louis when she married him at age 13 but throughout the story she becomes understandably frustrated with the utter lack of passion in her marriage.  Louis really would have made a better monk than a husband, as she quips at one point.  So in a bid to get out from underneath her overbearing mother-in-law and her bossy, stuffy husband she rebels in small ways by bringing bits of Aquitaine with her to court including its bright fashions and beautiful music.  I liked how she desperately tried to find happiness despite an objectively terrible situation and when she actually achieved some measure of happiness after her divorce, she desperately clung to it.  Having experienced years of misery, I really don’t blame her.  She had to grow up pretty fast and had a pretty rough life up until she met and married Henry of Anjou.  Even then, her happiness is only temporary.

The plot is not very fast-paced I must admit and I did struggle at some points.  What saves The Summer Queen is Elizabeth Chadwick’s writing style, which both lends an air of authenticity to the work and makes things interesting enough to get readers through the long travel sections (particularly the section where Alienor is on the crusade with Louis).  Sometimes even then the pacing drags the book down, however.  But the book is interesting enough in general to get you through those really slow sections and to the very exciting events of Alienor’s life.  She really was an incredible woman who was not allowed to be all that incredible until she achieved the legal independence she craved.  Alienor definitely chafed under the expectations put upon her in France, especially since she was such a strong-willed and passionate woman.  Even if you can’t get past the slow pacing, I thin kthe character of Alienor really carries the day.

Again, I can’t speak for the historical accuracy of this novel but I do believe Chadwick did more than enough research to lend an air of authenticity to the text.  She has this way of writing that puts you right there along with Alienor from the beauty of Aquitaine to her brutal trip slogging through hostile territory to get to the Holy Land.  She does admit to speculating about an affair between Alienor and one of her vassals because it cannot be proven but I feel she made a strong enough case to her readers so it didn’t feel like she was adding in intrigue for intrigue’s sake.  I am a little skeptical of all that she has written because she uses “the Akashic Records…to fill in the blanks and explore what happened in the past from a psychic perspective.”  That’s a little, um…unconventional…for me but she at least justifies her choices with more reliable historical records.  That’s why I’m not going to say that her research is 100% reliable, both because I know so little about the period and the fact she uses a ‘psychic perspective’.

Her research methods aside, The Summer Queen is a great read even though it does drag in sections.  The character of Alienor really does shine through and I think that if you love historical fiction and want to learn more about the famous queen, this is definitely a good book to pick up.

I give this book 4/5 stars.

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The Figaro Murders by Laura Lebow

The Figaro Murders by Laura Lebow(Cover picture courtesy of NetGalley.)

In 1786 Vienna, Lorenzo Da Ponte is the court librettist for the Italian Theatre during the height of the enlightened reign of Emperor Joseph II. This exalted position doesn’t mean he’s particularly well paid, or even out of reach of the endless intrigues of the opera world. In fact, far from it.

One morning, Da Ponte stops off at his barber, only to find the man being taken away to debtor’s prison. Da Ponte impetuously agrees to carry a message to his barber’s fiancée and try to help her set him free, even though he’s facing pressures of his own. He’s got one week to finish the libretto for The Marriage of Figaro for Mozart before the opera is premiered for the Emperor himself.

Da Ponte visits the house where the barber’s fiancée works—the home of a nobleman, high in the Vienna’s diplomatic circles—and then returns to his own apartments, only to be dragged from his rooms in the middle of the night. It seems the young protégé of the diplomat was killed right about the time Da Ponte was visiting, and he happens to be their main suspect. Now he’s given a choice—go undercover into the household and uncover the murderer, or be hanged for the crime himself.

Brilliantly recreating the cultural world of late 18th century Vienna, the epicenter of the Enlightenment, Lebow brings to life some of the most famous figures of music, theatre, and politics.

[Full disclosure: I requested and received a free ebook in exchange for an honest review.]

First off, if you’ve watched the actual opera The Marriage of Figaro you will appreciate this book much, much more.  It’s not necessary for understanding it or even appreciating it but you will appreciate it on a much deeper level if you have seen the opera.

Why?  That’s because we have a murder mystery set in Vienna with what are essentially the characters of the opera.  We have ourselves a lecherous count, a desperate love-seeking countess, her grumpy former guardian, a girl-obsessed young nobleman working as a page, a maid and a barber.  That, my friends, reads very much like the list of characters in the actual opera.  But if you have seen the opera, don’t worry.  The murderer is definitely not who you think it is and not for the reasons you think.  Knowing something about the characters and general plot doesn’t reveal the culprit too early, believe me.  Really, Laura Lebow basing her characters off of actual characters in the opera was brilliant in that respect because if you’ve seen the opera you think you’ll know who did it but it’s really a sort of red herring.  It just adds a whole other layer to the book and I did enjoy it.

Lorenzo Da Ponte himself is nothing like I pictured but I never actually knew much about the historical figure so that’s not really saying much.  He’s a largely toothless lady-killer, a relatively impoverished man working as the court poet and sort of official librettist at the court of one of the more enlightened European monarchs, Joseph II.  He was good friends with Mozart and is of course a bitter rival of Salieri and his librettist.  Essentially, in the beginning he’s not all that remarkable but things change quickly when he’s accused of murdering young Florian.  Then the secret service equivalent of the day swoops in and forces him to go undercover in the household as a poetry teacher to discover who really murdered the young prince.  Why would they send a poet in to do a spy’s work?  Well, things aren’t all that simple in Vienna of the day and some main players keep their cards very close to the chest.  Despite his indignation at the whole situation, Lorenzo does rise to the occasion quite well and discovers that not everything is as it seems in that household.

Laura Lebow’s writing was excellent.  She brings to life 18th century Vienna so well that you really do feel like you’re there along with Lorenzo.  Her characters are well fleshed-out anyway but it’s her brilliant writing that really makes them come alive.  While you may or may not be able to predict who killed Florian near the end, I personally was quite surprised (not that that’s really saying much as I don’t read many mystery novels.)  Even if you are able to predict the outcome, I think you’ll enjoy the book because Lebow writes suspense quite well.  Throughout the book there’s this aura of tension that gets slowly ratcheted up as the novel progresses.  Sometimes it’s almost unbearable and you just have to keep reading to find out what happens next.  Really, you can’t ask for more in a historical murder mystery: actual history brought to life and plenty of mystery and suspense.

The book ended quite realistically and I was actually surprised to learn that The Marriage of Figaro was not what Da Ponte was most known for in his day because it’s a staple of opera houses everywhere.  No, he was known for some obscure little opera that is practically never performed today.  But after he solved the mystery and the opera premiered fairly successfully, he and Mozart are going on a little road trip to write one of the darker, more terrifying operas I’ve ever seen: Don Giovanni.  It was definitely a satisfying ending with that little promise of an awesome sequel coming up because I do love Don Giovanni as well.  The Figaro Murders doesn’t come out until March 31, but I already can’t wait for the next book.

I give this book 5/5 stars.

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As a side note, if you are interested in actually watching Le nozze di Figaro, the best version I’ve found is from James Levine’s 40th anniversary at the Met.  Unfortunately, it’s no longer available although you can watch clips on YouTube here (the first three videos were deleted for whatever reason but you can get the gist of the first scene from the rest of it).  It’s hard to ruin either of the Figaro operas, so as long as you stay away from the Mozart Festival one with Anna Netrebko you’ll be fine.  The cast was great in that one (particularly Netrebko herself), but the production was total and utter crap and the choreographer and/or director were clearly on something.

Scent of the Soul by Julie Doherty

Scent of the Soul by Julie Doherty(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)

In twelfth century Scotland, it took a half-Gael with a Viking name to restore the clans to their rightful lands. Once an exile, Somerled the Mighty now dominates the west. He’s making alliances, expanding his territory, and proposing marriage to the Manx princess.

It’s a bad time to fall for Breagha, a torc-wearing slave with a supernatural sense of smell.

Somerled resists the intense attraction to a woman who offers no political gain, and he won’t have a mistress making demands on him while he’s negotiating a marriage his people need. Besides, Breagha belongs to a rival king, one whose fresh alliance Somerled can’t afford to lose.

It’s when Breagha vanishes that Somerled realizes just how much he needs her. He abandons his marriage plans to search for her, unprepared for the evil lurking in the shadowy recesses of Ireland—a lustful demon who will stop at nothing to keep Breagha for himself.

[Full disclosure: I received a free ebook in conjunction with the blog tour in exchange for an honest review.]

Scent of the Soul is a little jarring at first because 12th century Scotland is not a setting that I and probably many other people are familiar with.  Still, Julie Doherty does a good job of orienting readers and quickly captures the essence of the time.  You may find yourself with your head spinning as you try to keep all of the names straight but they’re repeated often so that you get a bit of a history of each person or place.  By the end of the book you’ll be a pro, trust me on this.  Doherty’s world-building just sucks you into her story so quickly that you can’t help but orient yourself quickly.  You’ll need to, in order to truly appreciate all that Somerled and Breagha go through.

Somerled is a warlord of sorts who went from penniless exile to mighty king, with many other kings/petty princes/warlords bowing down to him and paying him tribute.  We meet him as he’s older and looking for a political marriage to cement all that he has gained, but the sort of inferiority complex he developed as a penniless exile dogs him.  In particular around women.  So when one of his nominal allies captures a ship with only one sailor who survived and a woman with four dogs, he’s more than ready to give Fergus his wish and grant him ownership of the woman and the dogs.  Until he sees her and she sees him, that is.  Breagha is not just an incredible woman because of her supernatural sense of smell (among other talents).  She goes through so much in the course of this book that it’s really a testament to the strength of her character that while she doesn’t exactly forgive, she doesn’t hold grudges like many people would given the circumstances.

Thankfully, the beginning of Scent of the Soul isn’t too much excitement at once.  Of course we get glimpses of the massacre with the strange shadow men and of Semjaza, the book’s villain, but it’s just glimpses as we try to orient ourselves with Somerled’s situation.  After that, the pacing most definitely increases for reasons that I can’t quite fully get into without spoiling some of the cool plot points.  Julie Doherty doesn’t really let up with the tension after she introduces it and you’ll most definitely find yourself flipping through page after page to learn what happens next.  It’s pretty relentless, particularly toward the end.

My only real criticism of this book is that sometimes the time switches can be absolutely jarring, particularly toward the end.  There’s a particular scene where Somerled finds something and then it suddenly switches to Somerled happy with Breagha.  I get that sometimes a time switch like that can be great but it felt like it wasn’t made clear that Somerled had found something; his part of the story just dropped off the edge of a cliff at that point.  Maybe it was the fact my review copy was very poorly formatted so I have no clue whether or not there was a clear page break or other symbol.  That’s more than possible but I must admit that even with the clear point of view shifts, sometimes Julie Doherty doesn’t exactly pick the best time to do it and it’s really jarring.  Not exciting jarring, but just jarring and it leaves you frantically reading to try to orient yourself again.

So in short this book has awesome characters, a lot of tension and some pretty awesome world-building.  Sometimes the point of view switches are jarring and confusing but the story itself is still coherent and fairly easy to follow.  If the blurb has intrigued you, go on and pick up Scent of the Soul.  I certainly enjoyed it.

I give this book 4/5 stars.

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A Stolen Season by Tamara Gill

A Stolen Season by Tamara Gill(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)

One small mistake in the past will change everything about her future… 

Archaeologist Sarah Baxter just broke one of the biggest rules of time travel: leaving a piece of 21st­ century equipment in 19th century Regency England. Unfortunately, when she goes back to retrieve it, she makes an even bigger mess of things—resulting in the death of an English Earl. Now his brother is not only out for revenge, but he also has Sarah’s device. Which means an entirely different approach is needed. It doesn’t occur to the new Earl of Earnston that his charming acquaintance is responsible for his brother’s death. He is merely swept away by a passion that threatens his very reputation. Yet he gets the distinct impression that Miss Baxter is hiding something from him. Now Sarah must find a way to steal back her device, hide the truth about the earl’s brother and—most importantly— not fall in love…

[Full disclosure: I requested and received a free ebook through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

A Stolen Season is one of those books that you can probably guess the ending right off the bat.  It’s really just the journey to get to that ending that makes or breaks your enjoyment of the book.  At least that was the case with me.

First off, let me say that Tamara Gill really is an amazing author.  Her writing style is concise and yet flows in a manner consistent with the time period the majority of the novel is set in.  She’s able to create not only Sarah’s unique modern voice but Eric, our Earl of Earnston’s 19th century voice and sensibilities.  The two main points of view in this novel (with a couple of others thrown in on occasion) really contrast the modern era with the 19th century and Tamara Gill never switches viewpoints for no good reason.  Every switch is designed to carry the plot forward and it does this rather effectively.  Even though like I said, you probably know the ending of the novel before you’ve even begun, the journey to get there really is nerve-wracking.  You won’t be able to put down A Stolen Season because Tamara Gill not only has beautiful writing but a real flair for pacing as well.

The characters really do resonate with me.  Sarah is trying to deal with a major screw-up that led not only to the death of a man in that time but also to the loss of a key piece of time traveling equipment.  She has disappointed her father, the CEO of TimeArch and is tasked to go back in time to a year after the death of the first Earl of Earnston to get the piece back.  There’s only one thing standing in her way: Eric, the new Earl of Earnston and brother to the man Sarah accidentally got killed.  When he meets her he’s put off by her rudeness at coming to a ball that she wasn’t invited to but is convinced to invite her to a different ball and get to know her.  Even though he pretends to protest because of her rudeness, he’s intrigued by the beautiful stranger who doesn’t seem to conform very well to English society’s rules.  Soon they begin an attraction that could be the undoing of them both.

I really know very little about Regency England but Tamara Gill seems to have done her research quite well.  She actually has characters react when Sarah accidentally uses modern phrases and addresses things like the moral standards of the day, i.e. if a man and a woman are alone together without a chaperone they had better get married.  I particularly loved the descriptions of the fashions of the day for both men and women, high and low class.  Gill has such a way of describing things that every single description is captivating and lends an aura of authenticity to the story.  She really transports you back to the time both through the eyes of an outsider like Sarah and the eyes of Eric, a man who grew up extremely privileged in that era.  It really is a magical sort of experience.

Really, what more can you ask for if you’re looking for a time travel romance?  You’ve got beautiful writing that brings you back in time to Regency England, a cast of wonderful and three dimensional characters and a plot that even though you probably know the ending will keep you on your seat.  It doesn’t get better than this.

I give this book 5/5 stars.

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Blood Oath by Felicity Pulman

Blood Oath by Felicity Pullman(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)

Love, revenge, secrets – and murder – in a medieval kingdom at war.
A young woman, left alone and destitute after the mysterious death of her mother, plants a sprig of rosemary on her grave and vows, somehow, to bring the murderer to justice. But who can Janna trust with the truth? Even the villein Godric, who wants to marry her, and Hugh, the dashing nobleman, have secrets that threaten her heart and her safety.
In a country torn apart by the vicious civil war between King Stephen and the Empress Matilda, Janna needs all her wits and courage to stay alive as she comes closer to those who are determined to silence her forever.

[Full disclosure: I requested and received a free ebook through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

I’d previously read I, Morgana by Felicity Pulman so although I normally wouldn’t pick up what amounts to a medieval murder mystery, I decided to request Blood Oath on NetGalley anyway.  She did such a good job with the Arthurian legends I stepped out of my comfort zone to give this one a try.  In the end, I’m glad I did.

Janna is a young woman living with her healer mother, a bit of an outcast in the community because of her rather progressive views on religion but someone who was generally respected enough to come to when people were in trouble.  But when a lady calls Janna’s mother to help her with her birth and then again when the infant won’t suckle, Janna’s life turns upside down when she is called to the manor to discover her mother dead.  It doesn’t take long for her to realize that her mother was of course poisoned, but who did it?  How can one teenager girl, completely alone in the world and an outcast in her own community, solve a mysterious murder that no one thinks was a murder?

Clearly, we have an interesting plot in the beginning but it does get even more interesting.  As Janna roots out suspects and tries to establish a timeline of events leading up to her mother’s death, religious tensions within the community flare and Janna’s position becomes even more precarious than before, particularly since she’s a woman living on her own.  I can’t really go into much more detail about the plot because it would give away some of the pretty cool plot twists, but needless to say Janna does find her mother’s killer and it’s not who you would expect or for the reasons you would think.

The murder mystery itself is pretty fascinating, but it was the characters that really caught my attention.  Janna herself is pretty progressive for a woman at the time because of her mother’s independence but she still is a woman of her time.  She knows that speaking out too much on certain topics can endanger her very life so she has to tread a fine line between standing up for what she believes in and not rocking the boat too much.  But when she discovers who really murdered her mother, she decides to act rather than carry on without carrying out a little bit of justice/revenge.  Janna is obsessed with finding her mother’s murderer, particularly because they argued so much in the few days leading up to her death.  So there’s an element of guilt driving her but also a sense of duty and justice.  She wants things to be right and balanced but knows that it’s not always possible in medieval England, particularly with the vicious civil war being waged close to her community.

In Blood Oath, Felicity Pulman has clearly done her research about the time.  I’m no expert on medieval England but she lends a very authentic feeling to the novel by using the old spellings and old names for where the action takes place in the novel.  Instead of using Oxford, she uses Oxeneford, just little stuff like that. I was also fascinated by the detail she went into for describing medieval remedies for various ailments.  Clearly, she has done her research and she says in her Author’s Note that all of the background events in the novel are very true: there really was a civil war between King Stephen and Empress Matilda (sometimes known as Maude) being waged in England at the time and it really did split loyalties as is described in the novel.  It will be interesting to see just how much of an impact the civil war has on Janna since she decides to leave her village at the end of the novel.

To sum things up: Blood Oath isn’t the most fascinating book I’ve ever read because the plot is a little slow in the beginning but it is a good book. The characters are good but I didn’t think they were anything special and Felicity Pulman’s research was excellent.  So if the blurb has interested you, I would recommend giving Blood Oath a try.

I give this book 4/5 stars.

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Spoils of Olympus: By the Sword by Christian Kachel

Spoils of Olympus By the Sowrd by Christian Kachel(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)

322 B.C. The Macedonian Empire is on the verge of civil war following the sudden death of Alexander the Great.

As a boy, Andrikos watched as Alexander’s army marched through his homeland of Greek Ionia after defeating the Persians at the Granicus River on their way to the total conquest of the Persian Empire. Soon he will be embroiled in their world, forced to flee his old life due to an unintentional crime.

Thrust into the army, Andrikos struggles to cope with the brutal yet necessary training which his superiors put him through to prepare for the coming wars of succession as Alexander’s surviving generals seek to divide and conquer the spoils of Olympus.

But Andrikos is not destined to be a nameless soldier; by chance he is chosen for a clandestine mission – and is immersed in a world of intrigue, violence and brotherhood.

The path that lies ahead of Andrikos requires him to shed his immaturity and take on the responsibilities and emotions of a man beyond his years as he struggles to save Alexander’s legacy from those who wish to usurp it.

The Spoils of Olympus: By the Sword is a historical epic which follows the advancements of one soldier from boy to man set during a time of global conflict.

[Full disclosure: I received a free ebook in conjunction with the blog tour in exchange for an honest review.]

Much has been written about Alexander the Great but the aftermath of his death isn’t nearly so popular a topic simply because it was a really complex politic situation.  Kings were rising and falling with alarming rate and the diadochi were tearing each other to pieces over the least little thing.  Enter into this world Andrikos, who lives in Illandra with the other Ionian Greeks Alexander liberated.  He’s had a rough time what with his father dying and his uncle seeming to constantly disapprove of him and he falls in with the wrong sort of crowd pretty quickly.  It’s that wrong crowd that really causes him to leave and become a soldier.

Andrikos and the other characters were pretty good.  I particularly enjoyed Vettias, the old spymaster of first Philip, then Alexander and now Eumenes who is under command of Perdiccas.  He’s a clever man and if there’s one thing he knows, it’s people.  Seeing him try to train Andrikos to become the same sort of suave, sophisticated man-of-the-world that he is was funny but touching at times because you really start to see Andrikos grow up.  Throughout the novel Andrikos goes through so much and the brutal training he receives to become a proper soldier in the beginning really is just the beginning.  But because of all the things that he goes through, he finally starts to become a man.  There’s very little left in the mischief-making boy that we met in the beginning of the novel, particularly by the end.  So he at least has a believable character arc and it is very satisfying.

Christian Kachel clearly knows his stuff about the Wars of Alexandrian Succession.  It’s a complicated period filled with secret alliances, backstabbing and war and he conveys the feeling of the time quite well.  This atmosphere of both hope and despair plays out with the characters, particularly with Andrikos.  He leaves Illandra hopeful to join the military, is despairing when he goes through the brutal training and then again becomes hopeful as Eumenes moves against some of the other diadochi for his first battle.  Of course there are more examples of that but I really don’t want to spoil a large part of the plot, particularly some of the interesting twists near the end.  As for his historical accuracy, I’m no expert on the period but after a little bit more research to remind me of names and such it actually is quite accurate.  He doesn’t feel the need to add in battles and people that really didn’t exist other than the main character because the history itself is exciting enough.

My only problem with Spoils of Olympus: By the Sword is that the dialogue lacks both realism and subtlety.  I get that this is historical fiction and of course the language is different from ours in different time periods, but I just found the dialogue unbelievable.  Everyone from soldiers to spies gives great big long speeches about the problem at hand when just a few words would really suffice.  Sometimes the speeches make sense, like when Leandros is recounting his campaigns with Alexander.  Sometimes they don’t, like when the different commanders are giving their soldiers encouragement during the battle.  In a battle as bloody and vicious as a phalanx battle, you’re not going to stop and give your subordinates almost a full paragraph of encouragement.

And that really leads into the other problem: the total lack of subtlety.  Christian Kachel knows his stuff but really assumes that readers don’t, which would be fine if he introduced the history in subtler ways.  But he doesn’t.  No, characters saying things like this: “The Hypaspists are now known as the Silver Shields since the India Campaign under the commands of Generals Nicanor and Seleucus.”  That’s just not realistic because by the time Alexander was dead and Andrikos’ brother Leandros comes back to Illandra, everyone would have known that.  The readers wouldn’t have but the characters most certainly would and it could have been introduced in a much more subtle way through dialogue, i.e. “How many Silver Shields got back from India?”  “I don’t know, but Seleucus and Nicanor sure tried their best to get all of them back after that huge win.”  That’s not the best example but it is better than characters constantly stating the obvious.

So while By the Sword is a good book and I believe that Christian Kachel is a good writer, I did have a hard time coping with the dialogue.  At the same time, I loved both the characters and the moderate pacing of the story that just kept increasing.  If my review has at all intrigued you, I would definitely encourage you to pick this book up and give it a try.

I give this book 3.5/5 stars.

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Lady of the Eternal City by Kate Quinn

Lady of the Eternal City by Kate Quinn(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)

National bestselling author Kate Quinn returns with the long-awaited fourth volume in the Empress of Rome series, an unforgettable new tale of the politics, power, and passion that defined ancient Rome.

Elegant, secretive Sabina may be Empress of Rome, but she still stands poised on a knife’s edge. She must keep the peace between two deadly enemies: her husband Hadrian, Rome’s brilliant and sinister Emperor; and battered warrior Vix, who is her first love. But Sabina is guardian of a deadly secret: Vix’s beautiful son Antinous has become the Emperor’s latest obsession.

Empress and Emperor, father and son will spin in a deadly dance of passion, betrayal, conspiracy, and war. As tragedy sends Hadrian spiraling into madness, Vix and Sabina form a last desperate pact to save the Empire. But ultimately, the fate of Rome lies with an untried girl, a spirited redhead who may just be the next Lady of the Eternal City . . .

[Full disclosure: I received a free ebook in conjunction with the blog tour in exchange for an honest review.]

One of the things I’ve always struggled with in Kate Quinn’s Empress of Rome series is the believability factor.  She does take the most sensational gossip about all of the emperors she writes about and portrays it in her novels.  It’s a conscious choice rather than a mistake caused by lack of knowledge but sometimes it really doesn’t sit easy with me as someone who has studied Roman history to a certain extent.  I liked where she took this sensationalism in her first book Mistress of Rome but really didn’t like it in Daughters of Rome because the believability factor with those characters was just not there.  However, I set aside my impressions about the two books in the series that I’ve read (I’ve unfortunately skipped #3 but it wasn’t necessary to understand this story) to read Lady of the Eternal City.  Because whether I agree with her or not on historical matters, Kate Quinn does write a good story.

Here we have some pretty fabulous characters: Vix, who is all grown up and watching his children both biological and adopted grow up, Sabina who is now Empress of Rome, Antinous the rather naive adopted son of Vix and Hadrian the capricious and ruthless emperor.  Of all of these characters, I really did love Antinous the best.  Of course I knew how his story was going to end but Kate Quinn made me love him in a way that I didn’t think was possible.  For all that his naivete was his main flaw it was also his strength and led to some tremendous changes in other characters.  In the cutthroat world of Roman power politics, he stayed innocent and really did believe the best of everyone, even those who mocked and hurt him.  Antinous’ father Vix of course was also a great character.  On one hand he is loyal to Rome because of his years in the legions.  On the other hand, he’d really, really like to slit Hadrian’s throat because of a history of bad blood between the two of them.  Vix is a complicated man and he’s far from perfect as  you’ll definitely see around the halfway point in this book if you do read it.  It makes him more realistic, considering his background.

The plot is not fast-paced even by historical fiction standards but Kate Quinn tells such a good story that you’ll have no problem sailing through the 500+ pages of the novel.  Unlike some historical novels, it doesn’t feel like the unseen hand of the author is moving the characters forcibly down the paths of their historical counterparts.  No, she creates her characters in such a way that it feels like you really know the historical figure and understand why the character chose to go down their particular path in life.  Antinous’ story in particular resonated with me because so little is actually known about him as a person; he was sort of an ornament in Hadrian’s entourage for a number of years.  But Antinous in the story really breathes life into a boy known to history as a wallflower, nothing more.

I don’t necessarily agree with the portrayals of all of the historical figures mentioned in the novel but Kate Quinn is generally very historically accurate.  Her descriptions of everything from the numerous provinces Hadrian visits all the way to the everyday clothes of men and women are just fabulous.  She brings a sort of authenticity to her writing that makes you feel like you’re right there along with the characters exploring the farthest reaches of the Roman Empire.  And the little details she adds in to daily life just make it all the more believable.  Lady of the Eternal City is one of those novels where you can quite honestly say you learned something from it when you’re done reading.

So if you have read and liked the rest of the Empress of Rome series, you will like Lady of the Eternal City.  It reveals so much more about our old friends Sabina and Vix while also introducing an entirely new cast of characters in the next generation of the Roman elite.  As with all of Kate Quinn’s books although it takes some of the most sensational stories from the time it remains true to the general historical facts and Quinn adds in little details that make you feel like you’re right there along with the characters.  And that is one of the best ways to measure the calibre of any historical fiction novel.

I give this book 5/5 stars.

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