Desert Isle Keeper
The Black Madonna
It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Stella Riley’s work, so anyone reading this review could be forgiven for thinking that the DIK rating was a foregone conclusion. And perhaps it was – I’ve always found her writing, characterisation and storytelling to be of consistently high quality, and The Black Madonna is no exception. This is a thoroughly entertaining and engrossing story of romance, politics, family dilemmas, a years old mystery and quest for vengeance – and I’d venture to say that it is, without doubt, a really superb example of how to craft a compelling piece of historical fiction with a heartfelt romance at its centre.
The story unfolds during the period 1639 – 1646, beginning a few years before the outbreak of the English Civil War, and following the events that culminate in the arrest of King Charles I, as seen through the eyes of the members of the Maxwell family and their friends and acquaintances.
Richard Maxwell and his wife, Dorothy, are a happily married couple with five children (and how lovely it is to read about an older couple who are still very much in love with and attracted to each other). Richard is a member of the Commons, and while he is frustrated by the King’s actions in (among other things) levying taxes to fill his coffers without the support of Parliament, he does not adopt an anti-royalist stance either. Rather, Richard is a good, honest man who wants the best for his family and his country and who doesn’t want to take sides, but eventually finds he cannot do otherwise.
Running alongside the momentous political upheaval of the time, we are drawn into the lives of the Maxwells and all the ups and downs that family life entails. Eden, the eldest son, falls in love with a woman who is completely wrong for him; Amy the middle daughter is an inveterate flirt who is going to get herself into trouble if she’s not careful and Kate, the eldest daughter is sometimes far too forthright and clever for her own good.
Add to the mix the mysterious Italian goldsmith and usurer, Luciano Falcieri del Santi – a man with the face of an angel, a mind like a steel trap and a tongue like a razor-blade – and the stage is set for a truly gripping read.
The fate of the Maxwells becomes bound up with that of del Santi when Richard and Eden Maxwell rescue Luciano from a severe beating one night in the murky backwaters of the City of London. Thereafter, Richard and Luciano strike up an unexpected, yet very genuine friendship – which is one of the joys of the book – which brings the latter into closer contact with Richard’s family. The youngest son,Toby, is riveted by the goldsmiths’ art and wants to be apprenticed to del Santi, while Kate, finding herself utterly fascinated and reluctantly drawn to him, is trying desperately to resist what she thinks can only be a stupid, girlish infatuation.
Luciano, however, is not the man for her, as he tells her several times – he has no room for emotional entanglements in his life. He is, of necessity, focused on his business and, as we later discover, on finding the person responsible for his father’s execution for treason several years earlier. He knows his quest is a dangerous one and is therefore reluctant to involve anyone else in it, although he eventually admits to himself that he needs help and therefore confides in Richard.
It is, however, impossible for Luciano to avoid the growing unrest in England and the tensions between King and Parliament that erupt into Civil War.
Stella Riley handles her large cast of characters with aplomb and, as she always does, seamlessly integrates her fictional storylines and characters with actual events and historical figures. Her research is impeccable; and although I will admit that, especially in the first few chapters, I felt a bit overloaded with background detail to the extent I felt the need to go and look up a few things! – once the setting has been established and we have been introduced to the Maxwells, the Langleys, del Santi and assorted other characters, things take off and the book became hard to put down.
The multiple plot strands are woven very skilfully together. The war progresses – initially in the King’s favour, but inescapably, the tide begins to turn; Luciano begins to close in on his quarry and becomes a target; and the Maxwells are plunged into danger and tragedy. Amid all this is the slow-burning romance between Kate and Luciano, an attraction they are both desperate to deny. Their exchanges throughout the first part of the book are acerbic and sometimes deliberately hurtful as Kate, desperate to hide her feelings, tries to repel him and Luciano, who isn’t the least bit fooled, tries to warn her off. But the thing is, the more the reader sees of them – apart and together – the more it becomes apparent that these two are a matched pair; intelligent, quick-witted, passionate and – in their own ways – unique.
Luciano’s reluctance to become involved with Kate is as much due to the fact that he has to focus all his attention on his business in order to repay a massive loan from his uncle as it is about his fears for her safety. I should say here that I am reviewing the version of the book that was revised and republished by the author in 2013 (the book was first published in 1993), and that while the revisions are minor for the most part, some of them are key to the romance in that Ms. Riley’s changes serve to provide more illumination as to the nature of Luciano’s feelings for Kate. In the original version, there are hints that he feels more for her than he lets on, but for the most part, he plays his cards very close to his chest. In the revised version, the author has made a number of small changes and added some new scenes which give the reader more of an insight into how Luciano is thinking and feeling that I think are a truly valuable addition to the romance and to the story as a whole.
For anyone with an interest in English history in general and the Civil War in particular, but who wants more than a dry history lesson, The Black Madonna is a superb place to start. The amount of research that has gone into this book must have been extensive, and it’s clear that the author has a deep knowledge and love for the period. Her writing is superb and her characterisation is incredibly strong; she’s one of those authors who excels at writing male friendships, and there are some terrific examples of that here. The romance between Kate and Luciano is beautifully developed, and while the love scenes are not explicit, the sexual tension between the couple is intense and delicious.
In short, The Black Madonna has it all – adventure, romance, heartbreak, tenderness and humour. It’s the first book in a four (so far) book series, and very highly recommended.
(It is currently on sale for 2.99)