Reading Level: Adult
Size: 576 pages
Release Date: October 8, 2013
Stand Alone or Series: Stand Alone
Source: eGalley from NetGalley.com
Rating: 2.5/5 stars
I got a copy of this book to review through Netgalley(dot)com. I loved the beautiful cover and found the synopsis to be intriguing. I really disliked the first half of the book, but the second half was much more interesting and engaging.
The author self-describes this book as a fairy tale about syphilis (which I wish I would have known before I decided to read it) and that is pretty much what it is. The story is set in the 1500’s and mainly follows two girls in their late teens, both are servants in the castle. Ava Bingen is a seamstress who accidentally pokes the queen with a needle during a gown repair and as such finds herself in the role of either facing death or agreeing to spy for the King’s Secretary. The mute Midi Sorte is a nursemaid for the ailing children of the Queen and King. Both women struggle to survive in a dark atmosphere and find themselves closer to goings on of royalty than they ever wanted to be.
I think this is dubbed as YA but it should definitely be adult. There is a ton of deviant/violent sexual behavior including rape and self-mutilation. The two main young girls are repeatedly raped and abused. Although they are in their late teens, all the surrounding characters in the book are adults…so this is a very adult read. For example in the first 10% of the book we meet a man who has sewn jewels into his penis so he can keep his wealth with him and he enjoys the side effect of how much pain this gives the women he rapes.
The descriptions of things are gross and disturbing. I am talking about descriptions of the king’ bowel movements, details about the queens gynecological exams, and wonderfully (I am being sarcastic here) detailed descriptions about lesions, boils, and general disease.
This is one of those books where reading it makes me feel tired and generally grossed out. It seems to revel in the dirtiness and depravity of humanity. I know that a lot of descriptions may have been accurate for the “dark ages” but I don’t feel a need to relive that.
I might be able to put up with all of the above if the characters were interesting or likable. However, the two female leads are spiteful and strangely complacent in the sexual acts they are forced to perform. This makes them seem weak and unlikable. In the first 50% of the novel, they don’t band together but constantly betray one another in hopes of getting the upper hand.
The second half of the book is better than the first. The violence isn’t as present and the women actually start to work together. In the end I enjoyed the irony of the fact that all of these women who suffer so greatly end up being the ones who drive many of the final decisions that rule this kingdom. The second half of the book does justify many of the awful things that happen in the first half and it was very cleverly done. I almost stopped reading this book 50% of the way through, but am glad that I finished it up.
This book might be a treatise on the horribleness of being a powerless woman in a male corrupt society. Which is not something I really enjoy reading about. There is also a heavy theme about how awful syphilis was and how it can destroy a whole kingdom. The writing style is very lyrical and beautiful, it’s just too bad that the subject matter is do dark.
I actually enjoyed Cokal’s afterward about the history and research that went into writing this book much more than the actual book itself. The title is obviously a reference to the numerous wounds/boils on the royal family as well as to the small hurts everyone visits on each other as they struggle to survive.
Overall this was an interesting read, but too dark and violent for me. I think a lot of people are going to have some trouble stomaching the violence and deviancy of the first half of the book, which is a pity because the second half is rather clever. I absolutely cannot believe this is a young adult book, I think many adults will be uncomfortable with the sexual violence in this book and cannot imagine having anyone younger reading this. Not recommended, there are much better and easily stomached historical fantasies out there.