One of the books on my keeper shelf taps into a centuries-old political smear for a story combining history and magic.
Last month in a post about books not on my keeper shelf, I mentioned the late author Judith Merkle Riley.
Riley authored six books of historical fiction around the turn of the last century. (I can’t believe we’re 21 years into the new one!). Riley died far too young. Oh how I would have loved to read more books from her.
A recent History Extra post about Catherine de Medici made me pull out my copy of The Master of All Desires.
Here’s the book blurb:
Nostradamus, a ruthless queen, and a young poet find themselves in the fight of their lives…
Lady Sibille never goes looking for trouble, but trouble always seems to find her. When she inadvertently becomes the master of an ancient cursed head of Menander the Magus-the Master of All Desires-she suddenly has the power to grant any wish, at a steep price.
Queen Catherine de Medici is trying to obtain the power of the Master in order to get rid of her husband’s mistress. But she does not understand that the Master is malice itself, twisting the wishes that he grants to bring destruction.
But only Nostradamus knows that evil befalls all who wish upon this accursed object. Can he stop these determined women before they unwittingly destroy the entire kingdom of France?
The Serpent Queen
Catherine de Medici plays a central role in this novel. Riley combines history and fantasy and plays on the legend of Catherine de Medici’s wickedness. After the tumultuous French Wars of Religion, Catherine came to be known as the Serpent Queen.
Here is how Riley’s Nostradamus describes Catherine near the end of the book:
…as Nostradamus watched her, he had the most curious feeling, as if he were hearing some transformation within her barren, ruined heart. Black guilt and bitterest envy, fired by vengeance and rage, were working an alchemy in the secret chambers of her soul; there a vile substance was brewing and bubbling and changing, rising like poisonous smoke. And as he watched her aura, he saw a horrible sight…a writhing, rubbery bundle, like a larva struggling to metamorphose, like a venomous serpent’s egg throbbing with internal life yet to be born, and then he saw it tear open, and something huge, pulsating, scaly, and swaying rise and surround the dumpy little figure in black.
Or was it just a political smear?
There have always, in all times been powerful women, and Catherine became one of those. At age fourteen she married the future King Henry II of France in a political union. Catherine’s rival for her husband’s affections was another powerful woman, Diane de Poitiers. (This romantic conflict becomes the motivation for Judith Merkle Riley’s Catherine.)
Upon Henry’s death, Diane was banished and Catherine’s power grew through the successive reigns of her three sons. It was a time of brutal religious conflict in France. Catherine was blamed for some of the worst of the persecutions, including the St. Bartholomew Day massacre.
The History Extra article is a fascinating consideration of some of the smears against Catherine:
“Her detractors wrongly portrayed her as a ‘serpent queen’ who knew how to poison her enemies and who was heartless with the people of France. These attacks could not be further from the truth. Catherine, like any other ruler, did plot and lie when needed in order to protect her authority – or that of her sons – but she also showed how much she truly cared about the preservation of France, and always tried to find ways to promote peace and reach stability within the borders of her realm.”
A Good Story
It’s interesting to read a defense of Catherine de Medici. What is the truth?
I’m heartily sick of our modern day smears. But reaching back four hundred years for a villainess, adding a dash of magic, a bit of necromancy, and Nostradamus makes for a good story.
Note to self though: it’s fiction!
Do you have any good historical fiction reads to recommend?
Images: Wikimedia Commons