In the royal Scandinavian city of Skyggehavn, in 1572, two women who work in the palace find themselves involved with poisons, intrigue, violence and history.
Many voices weave together to form the narrative. Ava Bingen, a seamstress whose fortune changes when she mistakenly pricks the queen with a needle, narrates many chapters. Midi Sorte, the “Negresse” taken aboard a slave ship from an unnamed part of Africa and now a royal nursemaid, tells her story in a stylized, lyrical voice (“I do not like to hold a pen....It feel a silly thing to me, to tell a story through the fingers”). A third-person omniscient narrator adds more perspectives, among them the pained, ineffective king, Christian V, who loves a ruthless male adviser, and Christian’s petulant, bloodthirsty daughter, Beatte. Interspersed throughout are short fairy tales with dark twists—a princess rewarded for her craftiness when she steals from a girl who eats a poisoned apple, for instance. The story never disguises the grotesque and public nature of bodies or the violence of the court. Readers frequently see Christian talking to his beloved Nicholas while seated at his toilet stool or doctors meticulously examining royal women’s genitals. Both Ava and Midi experience rape at the hands of a powerful man, and Midi in particular is routinely dehumanized, lending the story a sad ring of authenticity. Though the publisher suggests a 16-plus audience, it is not beyond sophisticated younger teens.
Sometimes bleak, but complex and carefully crafted—mesmerizing. (Historical fiction. 14 & up)