The narrator of this fascinating book is famed painter, Hans Memling, who toiled at the court of the dukes of Burgundy during dramatic times that have tended to be chronicled by novelists who focus on the doings across the English Channel, where the wars of the Roses were entering their final stage. But rather than rehashing the same old story with the same familiar lineup of characters that Sandra Worth, Philippa Gregory and others have offered readers, Terence Morgan makes a big change in both style and approach.
The book is a brisk narrative by the painter, who sometimes talks directly to the reader about his art, linking the techniques of his painting directly or implicitly to the story he is telling of the fate of the young members of the royal courts of both England and Burgundy. These reflective pauses, if they were in a movie, would be like a main character speaking "direct to camera", and they work beautifully in linking Memling as a painter to Memling as an observer and later as a participant in dramatic events. "The face seems to change aspect as the viewer concentrates on different portions of it," Memling muses -- and so, he adds, "face value is no value at all, and truth is not to be found therein."
Memling has already narrowly escaped death when by a stroke of fortune he is able to establish himself as a painter at the Burgundian court, painting its young heiress, Mary, over and over again. But the young Mary of Burgundy isn't the only young royal with whom he forms an unusual bond; by sheltering two English refugees and their entourage at the behest of an English merchant in Bruges, one Mr. Cakkeston (think printing, and pronounce phonetically, and you'll get it!), he finds his fate inextricably caught up with that of the two young sons of Edward IV, and his brother, who would become Richard III of England. Morgan's solution to the mystery of the Princes in the Tower is extremely creative and even downright quirky; still, it makes for a compelling yarn. Even though there is no evidence that Memling ever left Bruges and the Low Countries, much less got himself entangled with the last of the Plantagenets, I found myself not caring: the hallmark of a good story very well told. Morgan also does an excellent job of weaving Memling's works and techniques into the story, without making it feel didactic.
This is a fast-paced book; another novelist could have produced a book three times as long covering the same material. There are a few points where that's a weakness (the outcome of the relationship between Hans and Mary is a bit abrupt, as is the ending), but overall this is a "thumping good read" that historical fiction afficionados will want to add to their reading lists. Highly recommended to historical fiction buffs; I'll be looking forward to Morgan's follow-up offering, and I'm glad I bit the bullet and ordered this one from the UK.