Book Review: Leonardo’s Swans by Karen Essex

leonardos-swans1 Leonardo’s Swans by Karen Essex is a fascinating historical novel set at the end of the 15th century in Italy. Isabella and Beatrice d’Este were the daughters of the Duke of Ferrarra, and were raised to be women of influence, married to men of power. At this time, Italy was not yet a united country, but a collection of city states ruled by dukes and princes. It was a time of great beauty in the arts and architecture, and each ruler tried to outdo the others in commissioning art and buildings and theatrical productions that would establish his kingdom as the richest and most cultured.

Isabella was married to Francesco Gonzaga, the Marquis of Mantua, and a military man. Beatrice was married to Ludovico Sforza, also known as Il Moro, the regent of Milan. Both women ruled intelligently at their husbands’ sides, but ultimately, the schemes and manipulations of men proved beyond their control. As Italy was over-run by France, fate lede the two sisters down very different roads – one ending in tragedy, the other ending in self-preservation and a place in history.

Leonardo da Vinci, the Magistro, was known by both women; he sketched one and painted the other. His is a very real presence in the book, although not as a major character. Portions of his writings were sprinkled throughout the book at the beginnings of chapters and sections. I’m not sure if these were direct quotes from his writings, or merely suggestions from the imagination of Ms. Essex.

Essex must do huge amounts of research, because her writing and descriptions in this book place you right there in Italy at the height of the Renaissance. I loved being carried away as I read, seeing in my mind’s eye the beauty of Milan and Mantua.

The plot did drag a bit in the middle, which I didn’t notice in Essex’s other book, Stealing Athena, but it wasn’t enough to make me want to quit reading. I was intrigued by these two very different but equally strong and passionate women, and wanted to know how their stories ended. After finishing the book, I went to Wikipedia online and was able to see the paintings and sketches of these characters, which drove home the point that these were real people who lived, loved, and died, and left their mark on history. If you click on their names in the first couple of paragraphs, you will be taken to the Wikipedia articles about them, where you can see some of the beautiful art these women inspired.

4 out of 5 stars

(I read this book for the Art History Challenge.)

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15 Responses to Book Review: Leonardo’s Swans by Karen Essex

  1. That’s funny, I actually thought “Stealing Athena” dragged more in the middle than this did. To each her own. I enjoyed both of them as well though too. Your copy has a totally different (and much stranger) copy than the one I read I must say though.

  2. CarrieK
    Twitter: booksandmovies
    says:

    Jen – yes, the cover is odd- I left the dust jacket off because I have three boys in the house!

  3. Yvonne says:

    Sounds like an interesting book. Great review!

  4. CarrieK
    Twitter: booksandmovies
    says:

    Thanks, Yvonne!

  5. Phyl says:

    This really sounds good. I love novels set in that time period.

    Which reminds me — have you ever read any of Dorothy Dunnett’s historical novels? If you haven’t, I highly recommend the 6 books of the Lymond Chronicles, and then the 8 books of the House of Niccolo series.

    Anyway, great review.

  6. CarrieK
    Twitter: booksandmovies
    says:

    Phyl – I haven’t read any of hers before – I’ll have to check her work out. Thanks for the recommendations!

  7. Phyl says:

    Start with “The Game of Kings.” Wonderful beginning. And an introduction to one of the most charismatic, scintillating, brilliant characters in any book I’ve ever read. 🙂

  8. CarrieK
    Twitter: booksandmovies
    says:

    Phyl – well, with a recommendation ilke that, who could resist? Our library doesn’t have any – I”ll have to add this one to my wish list at Amazon for someday…

  9. Karen Essex says:

    Carrie, thanks for that excellent review! I will share this with you and your readers—I had a terrible time in the middle of writing Leonardo’s Swans because I had to transition from the first part, which is about the more insular nature of the sisters’ relationship, to the second part, which opens up and takes place on the larger world stage of Italian politics. Oh, it vexed me, that middle! But these are the constraints a writer encounters when tackling historical fiction.

    And in Stealing Athena, I suspect that the person who commented that THAT book dragged in the middle read an ARC. We heavily edited the middle for publication.

    Also, we put a much more G-rated, and I think, more beautiful, cover on Leonardo’s Swans for the paperback edition.

    Anyway, thanks so much, and your blog is terrific and very ambitious!

    Karen Essex

  10. CarrieK
    Twitter: booksandmovies
    says:

    Karen – thanks for your kind comments! I have been following your blog and will be very interested in reading the book you’re researching now.

  11. S. Krishna
    Twitter: skrishna
    says:

    I’ve got this one on my shelf and hope to get to it at some point. Nice review!

  12. CarrieK
    Twitter: booksandmovies
    says:

    S. Krishna – I’ve had my copy for quite a while – finally got to it for the Art History Reading Challenge.

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