The Black Madonna by Stella Riley

Cover 1

Originally published in 1993, this title has now been republished in ebook form by the author. My review of the hardback version was originally posted on 13 Feb 2013; and has been updated in May 2013, to reflect revisions incorporated into the new ebook edition.

By July 1639, unpopular taxes, religious differences and no Parliament in a decade have turned England into a simmering cauldron of discontent. Less concerned by this than by his ailing finances, King Charles seeks ways of filling his empty treasury. Enter Luciano Falcieri del Santi – master-goldsmith and money-lender; a man known to London as the Italian … and possessed of a hidden agenda.

As the cauldron slowly boils over into Civil War, the changing times are reflected in the lives of the Maxwell family. From his seat in the Commons, Richard Maxwell watches the escalating quarrel between the King and John Pym – and, in Oxfordshire, his wife cares for the estate and their five children. Their eldest son, Eden, struggles to save his marriage to Royalist-bred Celia whilst taking up his sword for the Parliament; and eldest daughter, Kate, vows to hold their home against both Cavalier and Roundhead, should the need arise.

After six months in the Queen’s household, Kate Maxwell takes most things in her stride. A spirited red-head, she deals with the financial demands of the Royalist garrison in nearby Banbury, the constant carping of her sister-in-law and the Puritanical zeal of second-cousin Nathan. The only thing she finds utterly impossible to handle, is her involuntary and growing attraction to sardonic, irresistibly magnetic and diabolically beautiful Luciano del Santi.

The paths of Richard Maxwell and the Italian cross by chance one dark night in a filthy backstreet – and a friendship is born. It is some time, however, before Richard learns the truth about this clever, icily restrained young man. On the surface, Luciano merely operates his businesses from Goldsmith’s Row on Cheapside. In reality, he has a much darker purpose. He is in England to discover the truth behind his father’s execution as a traitor and, if possible, to avenge it. This, with the country becoming a battlefield and scant information to go on, is both difficult and expensive – but it is not Luciano’s only problem. He must also accumulate sufficient capital to repay his uncle in Genoa the massive loan which has financed his venture – for failure to do so will result in ruin. Soon, he also begins to realise that – unless he is both careful and lucky – the revenge quest may cost him his life.

His own safety and that of everyone he cares about rests on success. Only success will permit him to reclaim the Black Madonna, the symbol of his heritage which has made his vendetta possible. And only success will allow him to offer his heart to the girl he loves.

From the machinations within Parliament to the last days of the King’s cause, The Black Madonna is a historically detailed and richly-woven tale of passion, intrigue and love in a time when England was lost in a dark and bloody conflict.

Rating: A+

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Stella Riley’s work, so anyone reading this could be forgiven for thinking that the five star rating was a foregone conclusion. And perhaps it was – I’ve always found her writing, characterisation and storytelling to be of consistently high quality, and The Black Madonna is no exception. But in fact, I’d venture to say that she’s set an even higher bar with this book because it is, without doubt, a really superb example of how to craft a compelling piece of historical fiction.

The events of The Black Madonna take place between 1639 and 1646, in the run up to and during the events of the “first” English Civil War.

In it, we follow events as seen through the eyes of the members of the Maxwell family and their friends and acquaintances; and along the way take in romance, politics, family dilemmas and a years old mystery and quest for vengeance.

Richard Maxwell and his wife, Dorothy are a happily married couple with five children (and how lovely it is to read about an older couple who are still very much in love and attracted to each other). Richard is a member of the Commons, and while he is frustrated by the King’s actions in (among other things) levying taxes to fill his coffers without the support of Parliament, he does not adopt an anti-royalist stance either. Rather, Richard is a good, honest man who wants the best for his family and his country; and who doesn’t want to take sides, but eventually finds he cannot do otherwise.

Running alongside the momentous political events of the time, we are drawn into the life of the Maxwells and all the ups and downs that family life entails. Eden, the eldest son, falls in love with a woman who is completely wrong for him; Amy the middle daughter is an inveterate flirt who is going to get herself into trouble if she’s not careful and Kate, the eldest daughter is sometimes far too forthright and clever for her own good.

Add in to all that the mysterious Italian goldsmith and usurer, Luciano Falcieri del Santi – a man with the face of an angel, a mind like a steel trap and a tongue like a razor-blade – and the stage is set for a truly gripping read.
The fate of the Maxwells becomes bound up with that of del Santi when Richard and Eden Maxwell rescue Luciano from a severe beating one night in the murky backwaters of the City of London. Thereafter, Richard and Luciano strike up an unexpected, yet very genuine friendship, which is one of the joys of the book; and which brings the latter into closer contact with Richard’s family. The youngest son Toby, is riveted by the goldsmiths’ art and wants to be apprenticed to del Santi, while Kate, finding herself utterly fascinated and reluctantly drawn to him, is trying desperately to resist what she thinks can only be a stupid, girlish infatuation.

Luciano, however, is not the man for her (as he tells her several times) – he has no room for emotional entanglements in his life. He is, of necessity, focused on his business and, as we later discover, on finding the person responsible for his father’s execution for treason several years earlier. He knows his quest is a dangerous one and is therefore reluctant to involve anyone else in it, although he eventually admits to himself that he needs help and therefore confides in Richard.

It is, however, impossible for Luciano to avoid the growing unrest in England and the tensions between King and Parliament erupt into Civil War.

Stella Riley handles her large cast of characters with aplomb once more and again skilfully integrates her fictional storylines and characters with actual events and historical figures.

Her research is impeccable; and although I will admit that, especially in the first few chapters, I felt a bit overloaded with background detail to the extent I felt the need to go and look up a few things! – once the setting has been established and we have been introduced to the Maxwells, the Langleys, del Santi and assorted other characters, things take off and the book became hard to put down.

The multiple plot strands are woven very skilfully together. The war progresses, initially in the King’s favour, but inescapably, the tide begins to turn; Luciano begins to close in on his quarry and becomes a target; and the Maxwells are plunged into danger and tragedy. Amid all this is the slow-burning romance between Kate and Luciano, an attraction they are both desperate to deny. Their exchanges throughout the first part of the book are ascerbic and sometimes deliberately hurtful as Kate, desperate to hide her feelings, tries to repel him; and Luciano, who isn’t the least bit fooled, tries to warn her off. But the thing is – the more the reader sees of them – apart and together – the more it becomes apparent that these two are a matched pair; intelligent, quick-witted, passionate and – in their own ways – unique.

Luciano’s reluctance to become involved with Kate is as much due to the fact that he has to focus all his attention on his business in order to repay a massive loan from his uncle as it is about his fears for her safety. In the original version, there are hints that he feels more for Kate than he lets on, but for the most part, he plays his cards very close to his chest. In the ebook version, the author has made a number of small changes and added some new scenes which give the reader more of an insight into how Luciano is thinking and feeling that I think are a truly valuable addition to the romance and to the story as a whole.

On a side note, I particularly enjoyed seeing glimpses of some of the characters featured in Ms Riley’s earlier novel A Splendid Defiance – the thirteen year-old Abigail Radford near the beginning, and later, members of the Banbury garrison and Captain Justin Ambrose.

As the Maxwells story continues, the war escalates and the King’s fortunes begin to worsen; and things come to a head for Luciano and Kate at the ill-fated siege of Basing House. The Black Madonna has it all – adventure, romance, heartbreak (I don’t mind admitting that there were a couple of real “lump-in-throat” moments), tenderness and humour. It’s a real page-turner and I honestly didn’t guess the identity of the bad guy until fairly close to the end.

I’ll finish by saying that I’ve waited over twenty-years to get my hands on a copy of this book, and it was every bit as good as I’d hoped.



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