Karen Essex’s “Leonardo’s Swans”

leonardoswansbook[1]When I read the last paragraph of Leonardo’s Swans by Karen Essex, I said one word: Wow!

But when I first read the opening of the prologue, I thought, Huh? The ending is not just predictable, but revealed—in the first paragraph! So why should I read further?

Ah, but I’m a sucker for a beautiful language, and Karen Essex‘s  language shines—in the first lines!

So I kept reading.

The prologue describes a scene of mourning, taking place in the noble family’s crypt. Leaning over a marble figure of her sister, who died a few years ago at the age of twenty-one, Isabella is whispering to Beatrice about the things that she, Isabella, has endured and has yet to endure, calling herself “a figure on a chessboard of poison.” She reminds her deceased sister about the games they used to play and about their fierce rivalry both in games and in love. Isabella mentions Beatrice’s husband, Ludovico, rotting in a French prison, and the French now “tramping Italy,” and her own plan to attend King Louis’s ball tonight—thus telling me the reader not only about their personal problems but about the drama of their country. The fact that she’s whispering, afraid of being overheard and reported as a traitor, underscores the point that the danger is still present.

Isabella’s revelation grabbed my attention. I was intrigued by the sisters’ contradictory relationship. I wanted to learn about their lives and the events leading to this sad, tragic point. I wanted to know why Beatrice died so young, and why Isabella, while mourning her death, still considers it a blessing—for Beatrice. And of course, the Renaissance period in Italy, where the world greatest artists created, has always interested me, as well as the intrigues in kings’ courts.

I was hooked.

So I kept reading Leonardo’s Swans, this fascinating story of two incredible women, two sisters of the Renaissance, Isabella and Beatrice d’Este, both young, beautiful, bright, ambitious, well-educated, accomplished, strong-willed, and pretty famous and influential in Italy in the 15th-16th centuries.

The novel is filled with intrigue, suspense, love, lust, and verbal sparring. Karen Essex masterfully draws the image of Leonardo da Vinci—as a painter, a scientist, and as a person. I was lost in the 15th century Italy, which wasn’t a unified country as we know it now, but a numerous separate lands feuding with each other. But what fascinated me most, however, was the maturity of Isabel and Beatrice. With a short lifespan (40 years on the average), girls were betrothed at the age of 5 or 6, to be married ten years later. But young maidens from noble families were so accomplished by the time they became wives—speaking several languages, writing and reciting poetry, playing musical instruments, acquiring equestrian skills, as well as oratory ones, and whatnot–I thought that the level of education during the Renaissance, for nobility at least, was quite impressive.

Anyway, I enjoyed Leonardo’s Swans immensely and I’d like to add to my aforementioned word, Wow, this: If you like historical fiction, this novel will appeal to you; if you like historical fiction portraying a renowned Renaissance artist, this novel will certainly satisfy your interest; but if you like historical fiction portraying a renowned artist and strong-willed women (actual historical figures), you will absolutely love this novel!

Strongly recommend!


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