When Elizabeth I of England said that she greatly feared this ruler, she was not speaking of her well-known enemy Philip II of Spain, who launched the Spanish Armada. She was speaking of Catherine de Medici, Queen Regent of France, and ruler in all but name from her husband’s sudden death from a jousting tournament in 1559 to the ascension of her son Henri III in 1574. So devious and cunning was she, that some historians have contended that without her, the French monarchy would have fallen 200 years before it finally did in 1789.

Gortner has a fascinating story to tell in a period riven with drama, in this case the religious wars of the 16th century. However, I have read fascinating stories in periods riven with drama by authors who did not have the technique to carry it off. Instead of being glued to the page, I found myself bored and distracted by the frequent tells and head-hoppings that characterize authors who will not apply craft, or editors who are too careless or lazy to do anything to help them.

This is not the case with C. W. Gortner, who produced a flawlessly readable novel. Instead of being distracted, I found myself fascinated by the characters that jumped off the pages. Gornter has the talent and the technique to make these men and women come alive. I will give a few examples.

As I emerged from the courtyard, I spied Margot with her women. She wore a nectarine silk gown with a ruff so wide it framed her head, her face powdered and her elaborate coiffure sprouting plumes, her throat and bosom glittering with tourmalines.

Why is that word “nectarine” so powerful? It is exactly the right word. Here is a powerful description of Coligny, during a tense meeting with Catherine:

A spark surfaced in his eyes. I’d forgotten how self-contained he could be, how unrevealing of his self. Now that he was before me I recognized that mastery he’d always had over his emotions, a talent I only now was beginning to grasp. With him, everything ran under the surface. Everything was hidden.

Here is a description of Catherine’s nemesis the duc de Guise:

With a start, I found myself staring at Guise.

I’d not seen him since the massacre. Against the red of his cloak, his doublet was a dark velvet skin molded to his muscular torso, his white-blond hair cropped close to his scalp, like a soldier’s, his lean face proud.

This novel a sumptuous feast for the senses, that also humanizes the much maligned Catherine de Medici. Of course she made mistakes, but what I loved about this novel was the way it traced her motivations, from the naive young girl who just wanted to be loved, to a woman who was determined to fight for her children’s legacy. My most favorite moment is when Catherine confronts herself:

Left alone I sank into my chair. I did not think, I simply put my face in my hands and wept as I hadn’t in years. I mourned a thousand loses: for the child I’d been and the family I’d left behind, for the country I barely recalled anymore and the country I now fought to save. I wept for my dead children and my living ones, who’d grown up infected by the poisonous hatred of our religious wars. I wept for my friends and my enemies; for all the lost hopes and illusions.

But most of all, I wept for myself and the woman I had become.

Wonderful. Five stars.

–Cynthia Haggard writes historical novels.  She has two completed manuscripts that will be published in the coming year. THWARTED QUEEN  is a portrait of a woman trapped by power, a marriage undone by betrayal, and a King brought down by fear.FAMILY SPLINTERS is  a novel about identity, forbidden love and family secrets. For more on her creative writing, go to spunstories. (c) 2011. All rights reserved.


Filed under Book Review

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *