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Review: The Red Lily Crown, by Elizabeth Loupas
NAL, 2014. 418 pp. $16

It’s April 1574, and Florence braces for the death of one de Medici grand duke, Cosimo, and the accession of another, Francesco. It’s common knowledge that the heir apparent has two interests, women and alchemy, and the skinny is that he’ll be a crafty, intemperate ruler–just like his forbears, in other words, except more so.

Bronzino's portrait of Francesco de Medici, grand duke of Tuscany, 1567? (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Bronzino’s portrait of Francesco de Medici; 1567? (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

But such thoughts are secondary for Chiara Nerini, the fifteen-year-old daughter of an alchemist and bookseller who immolated himself searching for the Philosopher’s Stone. Alchemy fascinates Chiara as well, and her father’s laboratory has many treasures in it:

It was fantastical, disconnected from hunger, hunger, hunger, worn-out clothes and winter cold, as mysterious as if it had been created by some kind of magic. There was an athanor made of brick and clay from Trebizond–wherever that was–and a green glass alembic in the shape of a crescent moon. There was a gold-and-crystal double pelican and a silver funnel engraved with an intricate circular labyrinth design, supposedly a thousand years old.

But tragedy as well as poverty has dogged the family; her mother is dead, and horsemen ran over and killed Chiara’s brother, knocking her on the head too, a blow that still causes her headaches and fainting spells. She and her two surviving sisters live with their grandmother, a woman of republican sympathies who ill conceals her contempt for the ruling house. Nevertheless, Chiara has taken it upon herself to sell off her late father’s equipment, and who better to buy it than Francesco de Medici?

However, even to approach the great man is a dangerous gambit, and she’s nearly trampled again in the attempt. But she’s also lucky that Ruanno, an English alchemist working for Francesco, recognizes the worth of the object she has brought to sell–except that when de Medici sees it, and her, he makes a proposition she can’t refuse. Chiara is to remain in his house as a servant and assist in his laboratory, where he’s trying to create the Philosopher’s Stone. He believes that to succeed, he needs someone to represent the feminine principle, and she’s nominated. If she passes several tests to prove she’s a virgin , she’ll work alongside Ruanno and the grand duke, and her family will receive food, money, and gifts. But if Chiara fails the tests or breaks her vow, she’ll die. Simple.

This chain of events illustrates the key strength of The Red Lily Crown. You’ll notice that each twist in the story corresponds to a “yes, but,” the parallel structure to the “no–and furthermore” common to thrillers but also appearing in well-plotted novels of other genres. In the “no–and furthermore,” the protagonist thinks she’ll get what she’s looking for, only to fail and be presented with an even worse problem. Here, Loupas relies on a different sort of complication. Yes, Chiara sells her father’s equipment, but Francesco co-opts her. Yes, that has its advantages but could also prove fatal. Later in the novel, the author employs the “no–and furthermore” too; but to set the stage, she’s content to lead Chiara into a labyrinth.

De Medici drives the tension, changing minute to minute, leaving everyone around him to wonder what he really wants, what he’s got on them, and what they can or can’t get away with. I find him a bit much, vicious and selfish beyond belief, and the information that his parents persecuted him doesn’t quite balance the portrayal. But Loupas re-creates the Medici court, its intrigues, affairs, murders, and rituals, with a sure hand. I believe that part.

I have more trouble crediting certain plot turns, well done though they are, especially the de Medici arsenal of poisons. You know that Ruanno, who seems too good to be true, and Chiara will attract one another, so that’s no surprise, though Loupas keeps you guessing as to how it will unfold. I wish she hadn’t rushed important transitions in the romance, and it seems as if Chiara can read his thoughts whenever she wishes, a telepathy to be envied.

But I like a good story, and The Red Lily Crown is one.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.