Catherine de Medici learned the ugly realities of power politics, Renaissance style, while she was still a child. When her family is deposed from power in Florence, Catherine is first imprisoned in the city's convents, and then is denied the chance to return to govern the city of her birth. Instead, her uncle, Pope Clement, sends her to France as the reluctant bride of an equally-reluctant Henri, duke of Orleans, the second son of the king of France, Francois I. This novel follows her life from her first encounter with the astrologer who helps her understand her destiny and helps her shape it, Cosimo Ruggieri, to their final days as allies at the French court, which Catherine now rules as Regent and mother of the king.
Kalogridis tackles the most controversial aspects of Catherine's character head-on. Catherine is an unusual girl, to say the least; she is far more interested in astrology (along with philosophy and mathematics) than in the more orthodox subject of religion. Ironically, religious conflict comes to dominate her life, as the clashes between France's Catholic majority and the Huguenots become increasingly grave. While Kalogridis does a good job in tackling the complexities of the looming religious wars and the power politics of the era, she devotes a lot more time to exploring Catherine's controversial relationship with Ruggieri. Catherine may love only her husband (who, in turn, has eyes only for his much-older mistress, Diane de Poitiers) but her strongest and longest-lived relationship, in Kalogridis's view, is with Ruggieri. In her cause, he indulges in some pretty nasty stuff -- with Catherine's tacit acquiescence. (No spoilers here, but there's a lot of explicit sorcery aimed at consolidating Catherine's power.)
To Catherine, it has been clear since childhood that the ends, however bloody, justify the means. (She seems to learn this lesson rather rapidly, in Kalogridis's narrative.) The author does a solid job of portraying hte impact of a long series of abandonments, betrayals and losses on Catherine; even when I recoiled at some of Catherine's actions, I could understand her motivation. The reason I couldn't give this book five stars (and came close to rating it 3.5 instead of 4 stars) is the degree to which the author's need for drama sometimes damages both plot and character. Sometimes, the pace of the narrative is so rapid that Catherine's emotions never felt convincing. Characters disappear abruptly, never to reappear, or to reappear only in abrupt or implausible ways. Sometimes, the author's hand is pulling her characters' strings too visibly. One particular problem I had was with Catherine's love for her husband. While the roots of this are laid out early in the plot, never really felt convincing to me -- it was presented for me to accept. Lust or passion, sure; but love? It was also hard for me to see Catherine, as a strong and independent character, being as apparently vulnerable to the plotting of those nearest and dearest to her late into her life. Could she really have seen herself, as Kalogridis portrays her viewing herself, as being "drawn and tortured and dazed by guilt" after some of the apocalyptic violence in the final chapters? It's unclear to me whether this was Catherine being disingenuous, or whether the author really believed she felt this way.
At its best, this is a nuanced and intriguing portrayal of one of the 16th century's most controversial and intriguing rulers; and the book is at its best about 2/3 of the time. That makes it worth reading for anyone interested in a dramatic, fast-paced historical novel. While not a revisionist history of Catherine -- she never emerges as someone that you'd enjoy having a cosy chat with -- it does make her appear more human and shows clearly what factors turned her into the ferociously determined monarch that she became. In this novel, Kalogridis has thankfully dialed down the over-the-top and occasionally irrelevant explicit sex scenes that distracted me from the plot of her novel about the Borgias; there's more sex than romance here, but it all fits into the plot in this case.
This will appeal to historical fiction readers who value both lively, fast-paced reads and historical accuracy -- a rare combination. It's also a pleasant change to read a novel that isn't set in the Tudor or Plantagenet courts! (It's still manageable for readers without any knowledge of the period; those familiar with Mary, Queen of Scots, will find her cameo appearance and Catherine's perception of her to be intriguing.) But anyone looking for historical romance should steer clear; Catherine has little charm or beauty, few feminine wiles and resorts instead to Machiavellian stratagems and a bit of sorcery on the side.
Those interested in Catherine can also turn to a less-sympathetic and more prosaic trilogy by Jean Plaidy, beginning with Madame Serpent. Personally, I'm keeping my eyes peeled for another novel featuring Catherine due out early next year by C.W. Gortner, author of The Last Queen: A Novel, a writer with a knack for turning historical lives into pulse-pounding fiction without descending quite as far into melodrama as Kalogridis sometimes does.
(Note to the editors: it would be great if someone could clear up the errors in the French phrases. They aren't over used and are always appropriate -- but "ma fils"? Argh...)