Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Red Lily Crown: A Novel of Medici Florence by Elizabeth Loupas

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: March 25, 2014

April, 1574, Florence, Italy. Grand Duke Cosimo de’ Medici lies dying. The city is paralyzed with dread, for the next man to wear the red lily crown will be Prince Francesco: despotic, dangerous, and obsessed with alchemy. Chiara Nerini, the troubled daughter of an anti-Medici bookseller, sets out to save her starving family by selling her dead father’s rare alchemical equipment to the prince. Instead she is trapped in his household—imprisoned and forcibly initiated as a virgin acolyte in Francesco’s quest for power and immortality. Undaunted, she seizes her chance to pursue undreamed-of power of her own. Witness to sensuous intrigues and brutal murder plots, Chiara seeks a safe path through the labyrinth of Medici tyranny and deception. Beside her walks the prince’s mysterious English alchemist Ruanno, her friend and teacher, driven by his own dark goals. Can Chiara trust him to keep her secrets…even to love her…or will he prove to be her most treacherous enemy of all?

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Francesco de' Medici
Note to self: When Kate Quinn recommends a book, don't wait to read it. 

It sounds like a sales pitch, but I'm not exaggerating. Kate told me I'd love The Red Lily Crown when I first received it, but I took time to finish six other titles before really delving into Elizabeth Loupas' third release. Looking back I could kick myself for the delay because Kate was right. I absolutely loved this book. 

Loupas' depiction of sixteenth century Tuscany is radiantly atmospheric. Jumping from the page, the city comes to life with as much character and personality as the people who walk her streets.  

Loupas' portrait of the Medici court is another noteworthy aspect of her work. Not to gush, but Loupas' depiction is treacherous, duplicitous, and refreshingly original. Intrigue among the ruling class is a popular backdrop for historic fiction, but few authors put this much effort into recreating the rhythms and idiosyncrasies of the political climate under any particular ruler. 

Chiara's relationship with Ruan added nice contrast to the story. Developing over several years, the reader is able to see it mature in unique ways despite the differences in their age, motivations and perception of alchemical arts. 

I was also struck by Loupas' characterization of the Medici family. Joanna's genuine earnestness and gentle grace make the Grand Duchess of Tuscany a welcome source of compassion in her husband's notoriously lethal household and a poignant foil for Francesco's disturbingly malevolent mistress. Ambitious, jealous and self-serving, Bianca Capello's evil nature is matched only by her blind devotion to her brutally apathetic, manipulative, and ruthless lover.

My only quibble with the piece is Loupas' tendency to repeat phrasing. In context, the decision makes perfect sense, but as a reader I found the reiteration of remembered conversations slightly irritating. 

That said, I can't recommend the book highly enough.  Loupas' labyrinthine plot twists kept me guessing, creating a deliciously addicting sense of uncertainty and a desperate desire to see how Chiara's story would unfold. Chock full of political power struggles, violence and romance, The Red Lily Crown was thoroughly enjoyable cover to cover.

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Nothing will ever go back the way it was, Babbo’s voice whispered gleefully. Remember the labyrinth on that silver descensory? You’re trapped in the labyrinth of the Medici, and you’ll never escape. Never in this life, or in any other.
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