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Friday, January 27, 2012

Review: Satin Cinnabar by Barbara Gaskell Denvil



Set in 1485 against the aftermath of the Battle of Bosworth when the first Tudor King Henry VII took the throne from Richard III, Satin Cinnabar is both an off-beat historical romance and a straight forward murder-mystery-adventure. These plots and sub-plots interweave, held together by the strong atmospheric medieval backgrounds and the depth of characterization.On his escape from the abandoned battlefield, Alex, younger son of a slain lord, throws off his armour which would mark him as a knight of the vanquished Yorkists. The Lady Katherine, having heard tales of marauding soldiers both vanquished and victorious, is dressed for greater safety as a boy. She and Alex, both in disguise, meet in unusual circumstances.

Now the conquered lords once loyal to King Richard are in danger of their titles, their property and their heads, by order of the emergent Tudor monarch attempting to forge new loyalties for himself. Law and order seem under threat so Alex quickly goes into hiding. He takes refuge in the kitchens of old friends, remains incognito, and impersonates a servant. It is during his unorthodox sojourn in the kitchens that Alex encounters Katherine once again. Given in an arranged marriage, the lady is now reluctantly wedded to the new lord of the house, recently knighted by the king. Alex and Katherine come face to face for the second time and begin a most unorthodox courtship. But Alex’s cousin, newly pardoned and released from the Tower, is discovered murdered. The particular circumstances of his death put Alex under considerable suspicion, especially when Katherine’s bridegroom also dies suddenly, albeit of natural causes. The parish priest believes Alex guilty of double murder, and is persistent. He gives evidence against Alex, leading to his arrest and incarceration in Newgate prison – a veritable hell during that period. Discovering the true murderer, overcoming his enemies, and convincing Katherine that marriage with the right person might actually be an excellent prospect after all, involves Alex for the rest of the book.The consequent adventures take place against a background of reeking bustle, the confusion of medieval London’s prosperous growth, back alleys, the horrors of Newgate Prison, the sewerage ridden river, the quarrelsome and diverse population, and all the inevitable power struggle, politics and turmoil accompanying the very beginning of the new Tudor dynasty.

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My Review:
Satin Cinnabar is one of those books that’s so huge, you pick it up and think, “I could use this as a doorstop when I’m done!" You know - reduce, reuse, recycle and all that jazz!  But now, I would never relegate this book to the floor! And no, Satin Cinnabar is not some frothy coffee drink you can get from your favorite neighborhood barista! (It does sound delicious though, doesn’t it? Maybe I’ll invent an alcoholic version)

The book begins on the first day of the Tudor Period, with our hero Alex waking up under massive amounts of dead bodies on the battlefield. Good times! Where do I sign up? Oh, but it gets better. Being of nobility, Alex has to do many things he’s never done before in order to survive. Like poaching from unfamiliar lands, sleeping in hay and asking a peasant stranger for help, just to name a few.

In the beginning, Alex just annoyed me. He seemed unfeeling and apathetic. But I suppose losing one’s entire nuclear family in one afternoon might make one grouchy.  Later, I realized that the author did me a great service in having me dislike Alex at first. Very smart on her part, I must say.   That’s the only way I could enjoy Alex being taken down a peg or two and then later, glory in his triumph when he does find a way to turn around his unfortunate circumstances to his own benefit.

Alex is a master at turning the tide. He is so resourceful, adept and bright. For instance, after the takeover Alex gets a job working as a ‘pot boy’ on an estate which a relative still owns. When the estate changes hands (Tudor replaced most old nobility with people loyal to him), Alex promotes himself to “Clerk of the Spicery”. Very cunning, indeed. The Clerk of the Spicery is the person who procures and manages all spices. He is also at times expected to know medicinal uses of spices. In essence, the job that Alex chose to promote himself to was one where not only would he have financial resources, but he could poison someone if it suited his fancy. Very shrewd position to be in, in post medieval Britain.

Along the way there are a couple of murders, a poisoning, a woman dressed in drag, a boy who knows more about babies than a grown woman and a whore with a heart of gold. Sounds like a recipe for success to me! 

The beginning of the book started out very slowly, but the trade off was great detail. From the first word, it was apparent that the subject matter was infinitely researched. I know this because I’m one of those nerdy people who uses the dictionary feature on my e-reader for every word I don’t know.  The author not only used the words properly, but only used words from the timeframe of the book. Wow.

Eventually, I came to love Alex. I saw him as adventurous and unflappable. I also adored Lady Katherine, whose combination of naiveté, fortitude and determination made me smile whenever it surfaced. The love between Alex and Katherine is like watching a flower bloom at night. The fact that you weren’t expecting it, only adds to the beauty.

My favorite scenes are at Joan’s house in the slums. As it turns out, Alex does have a heart and when he cost Joan her livelihood years back, he made reparations in kind. The happenings at Joan’s house are hilarious and warm. A place were the societal rules of the time can all go to hell.  I found myself wanting them to stay there indefinitely. That little bubble allowed for so much growth in plot and character. At one point a man walks into the house, unannounced with a goat and two ducks in tow!  No one is put out by this in the least!   They act as if it is an everyday occurrence. Joan’s daughter and trollop extraordinaire, Margery is guffaw inducing. She nurses her baby in front of everyone (remember it’s 1485) while drunk and prescribing medicks. Renaissance woman alert!

If you’re looking to dive into a nice, long book from a different time period that has love, intrigue, sex, wit, and warmth, then this is the book for you!  I enjoyed the characters and watching relationships grow.







*Book submitted to Read Our Lips! Book Review Blog for review.


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