THE PLOT: The Red Lily Crown is about Chiara Nerini – an orphan in Florence in 1574. Living in poverty since her father’s death, and with her grandmother and two younger sisters to feed, she goes to the court of the wealthy Medici (the Dukes of Tuscany) to sell some of her father’s old belongings. However, the goods she tries to sell are alchemical instruments that could help Francesco Medici create his greatest desire – the philosopher’s stone. Chiara unwittingly enters the service of the Medici and wins a place at court. At first, the richness of the court feels like a dream but the dark alchemical arts coupled with the sex, lies and murder surrounding the Medici threaten to embroil Chiara in intrigues beyond her wildest imaginings.
RATING: This is a hard one to review. Is it original? No. Does it reveal something fundamental to the human experience? No. Did I enjoy it? Absolutely. I’ve settled on three and a half stars to reflect that it’s a good book, but not a great one. At its core, it’s a bit of escapism. A classically structured novel with very interesting and intricate plot about medieval murder and magic.
GOOD BITS: The novel explores the role of different historical women at the centre of the Medici court. Through the fictional character of Chiara, we learn about the lives of the Duke’s sister, wife and mistress (don’t worry, that’s three separate people). For example, the Grand Duchess Joanna of Austria is often overlooked in history but has a fascinating tale as the daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor, which is explored in the novel. The focus on female figures shines a light on these little known women and raises important questions about their proximity to power.
NOT SO GOOD BITS: There were some small plot holes, which never got resolved. This is the main reason I reduced my rating from four stars to three and a half. Initially, I thought I was so clever to realise the link between Babbo and Tommaso Vasari, assuming it would come to fruition. However, there was no grand revelation about why Chiara’s father was an alchemist and his connection to the Medici (and, ultimately, why she entered their service). An extra layer of detail about Chiara’s family history (and who Tommaso Vasari is…. why he left court… and why Babbo had his book) would’ve been more enjoyable.
OVERALL: I love medieval and early modern history. I know Katherine Howard from Katherine Parr, the significance of the union of Castille and Aragon, and can name the Holy Roman Emperors. Frankly, I’m a historical fiction nerd. So, if you love a bit of #hisfic (yes, I’m still trying to make this a thing) then this is a good book for you. It’s not going to be the most memorable book you’ve ever read but it’s fun escapism at its finest. Because, let’s get real, who doesn’t want to imagine themselves wearing jewels and a fancy gown, swishing around the centre of court like a Duchess?