Wonderful … that’s the only way I can start this review of Stella Riley’s latest novel, The Black Madonna, the first of a series covering the whole of the English Civil War.
I read it when first published in the late 1980’s but, thanks to e-publishing, Stella Riley has decided to not only upload her works onto the Internet but more importantly revise and amend them - with excellent results.
I make no apologies for saying this but, to me, Stella Riley is one of the best and most underrated novelists currently writing, not only English Civil War books, but also Georgian novels.
From the moment I started reading the prologue set in Vittorio Falcieri’s villa, Genoa I fell in love once again with the book’s leading man, Luciano Del Santi - a master-goldsmith and money-lender. Handsome, elegant, delightful, clever, articulate, cunning … ladies, he has it all and more.
Thereafter, Stella starts her tale of revenge and pursuit – made possible by the Black Madonna, a small statue of carved obsidian which, as Luciano states, ‘has no intrinsic value’ but is of vast sentimental worth to both him and his wealthy Genoese uncle.
The book begins in 1639 and the setting is England on the brink of Civil War. The country is in turmoil and rumour and counter-rumour abound. Families are at odds with each other; father to sons; mothers to daughters; brothers to sisters.
In the Commons sits Richard Maxwell, observing the proceedings and recognising that the disputes between the King and John Pym are now reaching apocalyptic proportions and war is inevitable.
We travel from 1639 through to 1642 and see, again through Richard Maxwell’s eyes, that wonderful moment of sheer historical theatre when the King enters the House of Commons on 5 January to arrest the five members of parliament Pym, Hampden, Haselrig, Strode and Holles and, reaching William Lenthall, says ‘Mr Speaker … I must for a time make bold with your chair.’ Magical and timeless.
However, while parliament is having its dramas, back at Thorne Ash, the home of the Maxwell’s, Richard’s wife Dorothy and his daughter Kate are having their own battle with the local Royalist garrison based in Banbury. And it’s here where we first meet Kate Maxwell, described as … ‘a spirited red-head’, who is more than equal to the various challenges that come her way and vows to hold Thorne Ash against both Cavalier and Roundhead.
Set against this background we meet Luciano del Santi - along with his excellent body guard Selim and his comical factotum, Giacomo. Once introduced into the Maxwell household, the romance between Luciano and Kate begins slowly and though it is rocky at first, the outcome is never in doubt. Now the quest to find the Black Madonna and seek revenge for the person who had his father accused of treason and summarily executed is in full swing.
Covering a span of 5 years with the various twist and turns that keep you guessing as to the identity of the villain, I found the story line compelling and interesting. This is particularly important because while the quest is developing, so is the War, which Stella Riley weaves into the quest seamlessly. We have romance and death. We observe battles and skirmishes; assassination attempts; arson and political intrigue. It’s all there in a sumptuously crafted piece of true theatre.
However, the most important thing throughout this excellent book is the typical Stella Riley style. She writes of people who you can truly believe. We hear them speak; share their secrets; observe their fears; understand their feelings and watch them fall in love. She deals adroitly and articulately with the complex issues of how and why the Civil War began and how it came to one of the most horrific scenes of the whole War, the siege and destruction of Basing House in 1645. This was when Parliament had little sympathy for those they perceived to be Catholic and killed about a quarter of the 400 members of the garrison, including ten priests.
She quotes the words of those that lived and intertwines them with her own deliciously created characters. But more than that she writes with passion and true feeling of how ordinary people must have felt during one of the greatest changes this nation has ever faced - and which has shaped Englad today.
I make no apologies for saying that The Black Madonna is one of the best historical works of fiction I have read. I can only congratulate the author on her work and, if you read this review, I wholeheartedly recommend it to you and your friends. It is simply wonderful. Thank you Stella Riley and I look forward to the next instalment in the series, Garland of Straw.
(reviewed 4 months after purchase)