When widowed English trading partner Sara Lathbury takes her spirited, more recently widowed niece Bess Marwick to the Continent to find a new local manager, the two of them enter a storm of romantic and religious intrigue in 1550's Antwerp and Rome. The storm, however, takes a while to gather: though it's clear from the beginning that the new factor, Bartholomew Catlin, has a troubling reputation--he's been smuggling anticlerical tracts for the likes of a grotesque zealot called Damascus; he's made room in his house for Sara and Bess (with the latter of whom he shortly starts an affair) by breaking off with a strumpet; and his obsession with the deaths of his father and his father's unsavory partner has led him to sinister astrologer/necromancer Nicolas van Wouwere--all goes well for the principals until van Wouwere assaults Bess and runs off leaving part of his beard in her hand. Quick to retaliate, van Wouwere adds to his earlier treachery (he's already swindled Catlin of 700 pounds) by forging documents revealing Bess as a witch. The two women set off for Cologne in pursuit of van Wouwere; but they don't catch up to him until they're in Rome and Bess has been arrested by the connivance of slimy Cardinal Carafa and his repulsive nephew Jacopo and thrown into prison by the Inquisition. Most of these complications are resolved with improbable ease, but first-novelist Soister, insisting that fate doesn't rule her characters' lives, still manages a downbeat ending. Readers whose idea of historical evocation is sword-wielding heroines who speak in inversions (""Like you it?"") will enjoy this thick slice of Reformation gothic.