Thursday, October 7, 2010

Review: The Scarlet Contessa by Jeanne Kalogrides

Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: HarperCollins, 2010

Caterina Sforza - her passion and wilfulness knew no bounds.

Illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Milan and wife at fourteen-years-old to the conniving Count Girolamo Riario, a nephew of the Pope , Caterina spent the early years of her marriage enjoying the wealth and recognition of her position in Rome's noble society, openly taking lovers that would further her fortunes while also bearing several children . Things changed with the death of the Pope and the couple had to fight to hold on to their lands and titles. Caterina became a 'warrior' - a woman who once said " If I have to die, I want to die like a man". She ruled her own lands after her husbands death, fought her own battles and never hesitated to punish those she saw as her enemies.

Her story is told by her lady-in-waiting, Dea, a woman knowledgeable in reading the 'triumph cards'. the predecessor of modern day tarot. Dea's reading of the cards reveals that Caterina will triumph twice at holding off invaders of her land but will not withstand a third and final invader, none other than Cesare Borgia, who has an old score to settle with Caterina. Trapped inside the fortress at Ravaldino, Dea reviews Caterina's scandalous past and struggles to understand their joint destiny, while Caterina valiantly tries to fight off Borgia's unconquerable army.

It is the last decades of the 15th century when Italy was not a united country but a number of constantly warring city-states and families. A very interesting historical background but I did find it very confusing at times. Borgias , d'Medici's and Popes are recognisable but add lesser known figures with names like Gialamo, Giacomo and Galeazzo to the mix of constant political intrigue , plotting , poisoning and murdering - not always easy reading.

Caterina can hold her own with any of them but she isn't the most likeable of people and I think it was an excellent idea to have a fictional central character who is much gentler and more feminine. Dea's story I really enjoyed - her early life with Caterina's family, discovering who her lost family were, the strange first marriage and a very moving later love story. Having worked with Tarot for many years I was particularly interested in reading about the Triumph cards and how she read with them.

Jeanne Kalogrides has taken the political complexities of Renaissance Italy and an outstanding woman of the time and created a fine historical novel. A pleasure to read.

Colourful Challenge


  1. I really need to get this one!

  2. Great review - just added this title to my wish list.

  3. This sounds so interesting. I was worried it might be a bit of a sad ending but it sounds too good to pass up!

  4. Thanks for sharing, will have to read love Historical fiction.

  5. I have been wanting to read this one for a while. Good review!