Book review, first published in THE GOOD BOOK GUIDE
It’s the last decade of the fifteenth century. Venice is top dog of Europe. For two hundred years her nobles have controlled the trade routes to the East, their galleys bringing riches up the Grand Canal and shipping them to the rest of Europe. But times are changing, and in an age of rapid progress the finest explorers of the day – Christopher Columbus, Amerigo Vespucci, Giovanni and Sebastian Caboto – are engaged in a race to discover a passage through to the Eastern Spice Islands, a discovery that will mean the downfall of Venice.
Mathye, an accomplished musician and lady of the Venetian court, is married to Giovanni Caboto, Columbus’ arch rival and the greatest seaman of them all. Under the name of John Cabot he will betray his country by sailing from Bristol, in a ship named after his wife, for Henry VII, the King of England, an enterprise which could bring death both to Venice and to his family. Knowing this, Mathye must struggle with her conscience, and choose love for her husband over loyalty to her homeland.
Her anguish and inner torment unfold in a series of diary entries and letters between her and Giovanni. The pain of separation is palpable, but the technique becomes somewhat tiresome, not helped by the formality of the language (a reflection both of the times and the knowledge that their letters would, in many cases, be seen by other eyes). One can’t help feeling that this is a story better suited to the historian – after all, straight narrative needn’t be dull, as anyone who has read Giles Milton’s Big Chief Elizabeth can tell you. Still, there is plenty here for the student of the Renaissance and/or the devotee of exploration – courage, passion, intrigue, treachery and tragedy combine in a well-researched yarn, spun across continents and over the sea.