Title: The Serpent and the Pearl
Author: Kate Quinn
Published: August 6, 2013
Rome, 1492. The Holy City is drenched with blood and teeming with secrets. A pope lies dying and the throne of God is left vacant, a prize awarded only to the most virtuous--or the most ruthless. The Borgia family begins its legendary rise, chronicled by an innocent girl who finds herself drawn into their dangerous web...
Vivacious Giulia Farnese has floor-length golden hair and the world at her feet: beauty, wealth, and a handsome young husband. But she is stunned to discover that her glittering marriage is a sham, and she is to be given as a concubine to the ruthless, charismatic Cardinal Borgia: Spaniard, sensualist, candidate for Pope--and passionately in love with her.
Two trusted companions will follow her into the Pope's shadowy harem: Leonello, a cynical bodyguard bent on bloody revenge against a mysterious killer, and Carmelina, a fiery cook with a past full of secrets. But as corruption thickens in the Vatican and the enemies begin to circle, Giulia and her friends will need all their wits to survive in the world of the Borgias.
For reasons I can't entirely explain, I am a bit of a Kate Quinn fangirl. There's something about her particular writing style that has rekindled my flagging interesting in reading not once or twice, but FOUR times. The women is batting a thousand, people. That's worth a gold star right there. This might cloud my judgement on her books.
This is Quinn's first stab at a time period outside the Roman Empire. That didn't stop her from choosing interesting protagonists, just like she always does. Giulia Farnese is an idealistic young woman who finds her beliefs and character challenged when she finds out that her marriage was arranged for the benefit of another man. Carmelina is on the run from Venice, hiding a bundle of recipes, a stolen relic and pile of secrets. Using her skills as a cook and more than a little bravado, she works her way into the households of the powerful in Rome. Last, Leonello is a sharp-tongued dwarf who would rather stab you than juggle for your amusement and is out to avenge his murdered friend.
There's something about her character choices that make the story interesting right away. Choosing two female protagonists in a time when they didn't possess any real power, and a dwarf when they were considered amusement for the wealthy, means that the narrative shows these three very different people trying to work alongside one another while finding their place in an uncertain world.
As the story progresses, each of the characters find their own strengths, learning to see (and use) the world as it is, rather than how it might be. Pragmatism rules the day as Giulia trades her respectability for a reputation that opens some doors while slamming others - and she finds how that can be a freedom and power on its own. Carmelina begins to take ownership of her fate while Leonello starts to smooth his edges and starts making inroads into the murderer's identity.
And something really dramatic happens - and the book is over. And I'm left saying "No no no! There has to be more!" And there is. It's the second book of the series, due to be released in January of 2014.
So, I'm going to deduct part of a star for that dirty, dirty trick, and still say I really love Kate Quinn. I will absolutely be purchasing The Lion and the Rose when it hits shelves.
4.5 out of 5 stars!