The author is not primarily a historian, but her research has an impressive surface spread, incorporating first-rate contemporary material and cautious speculation--all of which focuses con. vincingly on the remarkable shrewdness and stamina of Catherine de Medici. Mahoney begins her chronicle with the girlhood of the 16th-century fledgling queen. At first the reader might be put off by such generalizations as: ""That nightmare journey (through a war-ravaged Florentine landscape) determined her life-long horror of war. . . and her constant resolution for peace at any price."" However, in detailing the career of Catherine as Queen of Henri II of France, official Regent and then unofficial prime minister for three kings, her sons, the author has piled up evidence to arrive at a reasonable estimate of Catherine's political and personal style. Not possessed of Tudor charisma as was her peer, Elizabeth of England, Catherine was yet a master of mercurial on-the-spot negotiation and sideswiping action when dealing with enemies and gormless offspring, under conditions which would have cowed lesser royal diplomats. Her husband never loved her; once widowed she outlived four sons: the weak Francis II, the vacillating Charles IX, Henri III, who enjoyed dressing in women's clothes, and the perverse Alencon; and the Crown was continually threatened by contending nobles and Princes of the Blood including her wily son-in-law, Henri of Navarre. As for the Huguenot massacre, although she was certainly implicated, the author feels that Catherine, unusually moderate in religious matters, ""was not a long-range planner"" and therefore the massacre was not premeditated. In all, this is an adept portrait of a duelist without a power base (""she dealt with individuals, always reducing warfare to a single combat""), a tigress/mother who always found excuses for her impossible family, and a woman of amazing gifts. Conscientious.