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One of the reasons I love to read historical fiction is that I like to learn more about other cultures and countries while enjoying a good story! Now, before you think I believe every word of the fiction I read, let me assure you that I often finish the novel and read up on the history behind it - my way of gently broadening my historical horizons... (Worry not, Phillippa Gregory's musings on the world of Anne Boleyn did not appear in my Tudor History A-Level!) This book was no exception - I have learnt much more about Hungary in the 16th century than I knew before. Largely because I formerly knew nothing...
Anyway, this one is another of those deliciously intriguing areas of history where there is still some debate over what happened. Although the Countess was imprisoned for the monstrosities she was accused of, she was never actually tried, which obviously means no court testimonies or similar to base her guilt on. It's a morbidly fascinating case and that is translated into the book brilliantly. Even though the narrator, Amara, knows the "truth" of the story, she maintains the intrigue by weaving her tale fairly objectively.
The narrator, Amara, is a life-long friend of the Countess after being sent to live with her when they are both young. The first part of the novel could be any historical fiction book and I didn't really get a sense that the book was set in Hungary - in fact, it felt very British in its traditions. That could well be realistic, however. The narrator's voice is very accessible and isn't blighted by an author's attempts to be overly authentic. I had a sense of the time, I think, just not the place.
As the novel progresses, so do the characters. The more depraved Elizabeth became, the more interesting the book got for me. And that isn't because of the actual monstrous behaviour but because of Amara. One of my favourite things about the novel was the way it dealt with morality. Amara witnesses, and in a way is an accomplice to, horrifying acts of torture and degradation. She is repulsed and disturbed by the actions...and yet, she loves Elizabeth so she tries to stand by her. The descent is gradual and I got the feeling that Amara was being pulled along by her dominant mistress and just kept rationalising as she went. A "slippery slope" type argument, if you will, that I was both intrigued and appalled by.
I really enjoyed the book - it wasn't always easy to read in its brutality but I got the sense of a darker, more physical age which was interesting. Having said that, my main criticism is of the ending. For the most part, the pace is very consistent; the character development likewise. Towards the last 100 pages or so, however, there is a shift and it seems as though the author is reaching desperately for a cliff-hanger, something that will drive you to the second book. I found it a bit unnecessary - there were unresolved romances, a descent into utter carnality to witness and a whole host of characters I wanted to see through their tempestuous existences. I'm sure I and other readers would have stuck with the Countess without a "mystery" to follow...
Overall: This is in no way suitable for younger readers but I would definitely recommend it to fans of historical fiction looking for a new period to explore. It's stormy and cruel. it has romance, revenge, scandal and history and it will not let you go - I will definitely be reading the sequel.
Labels: 3.5 stars, historical fiction35 36 37 38