Madame Serpent (Catherine de Medici #1), by Jean Plaidy

Six stars

Plaidy has been called one of the great historical fiction writers of the 20th century, particularly in her focus of European history and the female players that shaped its development. In this, the first of a trilogy, Plaidy invites the readers into the world of Catherine de Medici. As with many young women of the time, she was a pawn on the chessboard of European peacemaking, where marriages helped not only strengthen alliances, but allowed monarchies to oversee larger pieces of the European pie. Stuck in her native Italy, de Medici is soon betrothed to the King of France’s second son, Henry. Wary of this union, de Medici offers much resistance, but when the Pope is your suitor, there is little objection to be made. Heading to France, de Medici arrives where Henry and King Francis await her, only to discover that she is involved in a love triangle not of her own making. Henry is enamoured with another woman, said to be a sorceress of sorts, who has control over the prince and dictates his every move. After the heir to the French Throne is poisoned, all eyes turn to de Medici when the culprit is found to be an Italian. She professes no involvement, but is not forlorn at her advancement closer to the Throne. Now married to the Dauphin, the heir to the Throne, de Medici must worry about the next issue, being without children of her own. While she had a man with whom she was strongly enamoured, his death has led de Medici to turn her love towards her husband, who refuses to reciprocate. It is only when Henry shows her minimal affection to ensure she brings forth an heir that the Dauphine de Medici can rest easier. However, she has come to realise that no one will protect her other than herself. Dauphine de Medici’s sentiments sour and she becomes bitter about her life, turning to scheming and plotting her own revenge, for herself and Italy. Plaidy explores some of Catherine de Medici’s deep-seeded distrust in the French Court to fan the flames of evil buried deep inside her, vowing to right all the wrongs that have befallen her. A curious opening novel that introduces keen readers to the life of this most-cutthroat Italian princess. 

I will be the first to admit that I love these period pieces that surround themselves with European monarchies. That said, I was impeded from becoming strongly connected to this story, for reasons I cannot fully understand. I cannot criticise Plaidy, as I am sure her success and admiration by millions cannot be false in comparison to my sole struggle. I felt the same way when reading another author who wrote in this same genre, also from the 1950s, so there may be something on which we can build. Could it, perhaps, be a lack of narrative connection or perhaps something less scandalous as I am used to in today’s writers? That said, Plaidy successfully paints Catherine de Medici and those around her in brushstrokes that depict struggle, scandal, and the plight of European growth. I may, after a time, return to this series to see how de Medici fares in the second and third novels, though find myself in need of literary courage for that plunge. I admit, my rating of this book will not be as high as it might have been had I been more attached to the entire method, though I do counsel those who read this review to take my comments with a grain of proverbial salt.

Well done, Madam Plaidy, for your presentation. While it did not pull me in, many others have surely taken to you. For that, you have my respect, at least.