Running with the wolves

Caterina Sforza by Lorenzo di Credi
Odd how a review can change. When you know you're going to be reviewing a book, you start reviewing it even as you're reading it. The nuts and bolts will come later, but you'll have a feeling probably from quite an early stage as to whether or not this is going to be a good or bad review. For much of Lisa Hilton's Wolves in Winter the book was shaping up nicely to be a thumbs up all round good review, but then it all went a bit wrong.

The cover trumpets that this is a book for Philippa Gregory lovers, and I think that's a fair comment. It's an historical novel / romance which, I believe, tries to be pretty accurate about the historical content while weaving a fictional story around it.

Mura is the daughter of Samuel Benito, a bookseller in late-Moorish Toledo. With the city only recently taken over by Christian Spain, Benito finds himself in a difficult position. When he is killed by the officers of the Inquisition his young daughter Mura is spirited away to a local brothel from whence she is sold into the service of the Medici family of Florence. Benito had believed that his daughter had supernatural gifts, and it is for these "talents" that she is required by the Medicis. But the Medici themselves are about to lose their fortune and their place in society, and Mura will end up working for Caterina Sforza, a redoubtable noblewoman and possible model for the Mona Lisa, who is about to cross swords with the Borgias.

There's much to admire about this novel. The pace is good, it's eminently readable, the historical detail is fascinating - I know a lot more about Caterina Sforza now than I ever did. Ultimately though the ending of the tale is a bit of a cop-out with Hilton seemingly obliged to give the customary happy ending to a tale that I doubt ever would have ended that way. While Caterina and the Medici are in the ascendancy the novel works. Mura, the central figure, is an engaging character, even if some of the situations that she finds herself in do seem rather unlikely. But as the novel runs towards its close, I struggled to believe in it. Ironically as Mura loses her superstition I also lost my engagement in her tale. Once the magical elements that lie at the heart of Mura's appeal are lost, the whole book suffers with a jolt into a less than spellbinding reality.

Worth a read though - and certainly a book to pick up if you're thinking of holidaying in Florence as there's some great background detail to the turbulent history of the city. Probably wouldn't read it again, but I would read another Lisa Hilton if it came my way.


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