Judith Merkle Riley,
The Serpent Garden
(Viking, 1996;
Penguin, 1997)

Judith Merkle Riley plunges her plucky heroine into the wiles and intrigues of the mid-16th century in The Serpent Garden.

Susanna Dallet is the daughter of a Flemish painter with a special talent for miniatures. When her wayward artist husband dies suddenly and violently, she accepts a commission to paint a miniature of King Henry VIII's sister, Mary. One thing leads to another and Susanna becomes part of the princess Mary's wedding train as she is dispatched to France to marry the aged and ailing King Louis XII. Since painting is uncommon among and, in fact, normally forbidden to women, Susanna is a royally sanctioned novelty.

She finds that not only are there intrigues and rumors flying between the English and French courts, there are a-plenty within the French court as well. In addition, she has a persistent diabolist and demon in pursuit of her, as well as a fanatical group which broke away from the Templar knights. Yet somehow, Susanna navigates her situation with her sharp wit, talent and ingenuity -- not to mention a little help from an unconventional angel.

Riley is a lively engrossing storytelling with a marvelous ear for dialogue. The characters seem to stride off the page and the supernatural elements are well-handled, avoiding both angelic and demonic stereotypes. Riley has a fine sense of timing, and the humor that threads through the book is delicious.

Susanna is a stand-out character: unconventional and strongly principled yet conscious of societal rules and expectations, loving, generous and courageous not because she's fearless but because she acts in spite of her fear.

Riley uses an intriguing structure in the organization of the book; it is divided by descriptions of 13 miniature paintings from a variety of sources, although I could not verify that they were actual sources. Each painting is by an "artist unknown" and by attributing them to Susanna, Riley works them into the story. The device is convincing, and it works well.

The Serpent Garden is a riveting and luxurious reading experience for anyone who enjoys historical fiction with strong characters and a hint of whimsy.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]
Rambles: 18 May 2002

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