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REVIEW: The Serpent Garden by Judith Merkle Riley

Dear Mrs. Riley,

As I look back on the books of yours that I’ve read, two central themes stand out. 1) How helpless women were during most of history and 2) how it’s better for the little people to get out of the way of the powerful ones when those people are throwing their weight around. “The Serpent Garden” is no exception.

Susanna Dallet thinks she’s a happily – well, sort of happily, and she does try with The Good Wyfe’s Book of Manners – married woman. Her childhood nurse Nan knows differently. In fact, almost everyone in London knows that Master Dallet is a swine who’s dallying with a married lady and who only married Susanna for the painting secrets her father taught her. It takes his dead body delivered by his mistress’s husband’s men along with all his creditors descending on Susanna for her to learn the truth. And then what is she going to do? Women aren’t allowed to be master painters and she’s got bills to pay.

And this is where she begins to break the law, get in trouble by becoming involved with the High and Mighty men of the day and find love. Though of course she doesn’t know it then. By the time she and her true love evade the men trying to kill them in Paris, they’ll have rubbed shoulders with Archbishop Wolsey, Henry VIII, his sister Princess – and later Queen of France then Duchess of Suffolk – Mary Tudor, most of the French court, most of the English court, a horrid lawyer, and a truly horrid magistrate, antiquarian, and master of the conjuration of demons by the method of Honorius. Plus the Priory of Sion, an angel, cherubs and a lower class demon with style aspirations!

There are many times when Susanna will lament the fact that she’s got tangled up in the affairs of great men and women. Several instances when she’ll get pissed at the man she ultimately ends up falling in love with while he gets pissed back. And lots of things she’ll end up doing to support and save herself and others that would never have crossed her mind to imagine doing.

The book is rich in detail – sometimes almost too rich as we often get a run down on the fabulous clothes of the rich and famous every single time they appear in a scene – and portrays life early in the reign of Henry VIII at the level of the lower and middle classes. Life was hard then for anyone but especially hard for unfortunate women left at the mercy of a fate with no strong and caring man to look out for them. And even those men often viewed women as empty headed baubles fit only for bearing children. Men were against them, laws were against them and often fellow women were suspicious of any woman who broke ranks. It’s little wonder Susanna feels overwhelmed as she tries to support herself and Nan.

But Susanna is no saintly, long suffering woman nor is she a strident proto-feminist. She is a woman of her times who enjoys good food, a warm house and someone to love her. For her, painting is breathing and she could no more give it up than stop living. She’s also got a delicious, sly sense of humor.

It WAS IN THE YEAR 1514 THAT FATE AND MY SINS SENT ME INTO THE WORLD AND THENCE TO THE COURT OF THE KING OF FRANCE, A VERY WOMB OF INTRIGUE FROM WHICH NO RESPECTABLE ENGLISH WIDOW SUCH AS I WAS MIGHT HOPE TO ESCAPE UNSCATHED.

Little steps lead to the pit, they say, and I must admit I was overfond of nice clothes and the better sort of wine, to say nothing of the great wickedness of making indelicate paintings for the sake of the handsome sound of money chinking in my purse on market day. They led me a long way, my sins, from a life of quiet if rather boring virtue studying drawing and the life of the Virgin in my father’s house to the worldly deviousness required of a limner to gentlefolk and paintrix to princes. Ah, that sounds grand, doesn’t it? Vanity, yes, that’s another sin of yours, Susanna, I say to myself. And that doesn’t even count the greater ones. Sloth. Shameless deception. And carnal love. But though I know I should repent, when I think on temptation and where it led me, I find it hard to be sorry.

I can easily see how this book would not be for all tastes. It’s told from several PsOV, first person through third, and is almost too detailed in places. Then there’s the whole paranormal/supernatural aspect of a demon, two imps, an angel, several cherubs and in the end, two archangels. Any or all of these aspects might be deal breakers depending on the reader. But the characters were so wonderful, the setting so rich, the emotions so universal that none of it mattered to me.

I love that Susanna uses her wits and skills to save the day yet that she doesn’t turn into a Wonder Woman. In the end, she’s still got her faults and fancies. Roger loves her for who she is and by books end, he knows exactly who she is and that she won’t change. Nor would she be happy or they have the kind of marriage they could have if he were to ask, much less demand, change of her.

For me “The Serpent’s Garden” is a strong B+ though I would hope potential readers would keep what I’ve said about it in mind should they decide to give it a try. Despite reusing the two themes of the book from several previous novels, I think you manage to keep your plots fresh, your characters lively and your books delightful.

~Jayne

This book can be purchased in trade paperback from Amazon or Powells or ebook format.

Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.

25 Comments

  1. Lynne Connolly
    Oct 23, 2008 @ 06:12:18

    Odd that the cover is obviously taken from the Holbein portait of Anne of Cleves which shows her in German dress – something she was derided for and immediately abandoned for English dress on her arrival on English soil.
    Or perhaps I’m just sensitive about cover art right now.
    It sounds – interesting. Though I’d wonder how she managed to get herself accepted as a painter in the 16th century. I’ll be looking out for this one!

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  2. (Jān)
    Oct 23, 2008 @ 07:02:38

    I really liked this book. What draws me to her novels time and again is that even despite the slight fantasy elements in some, they’re far more realistic than most romance novels, and reading them makes me feel I really understand what it would be to be a woman of that time. Thanks for the review Jayne. I think I’ll have to re-read this soon.

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  3. Marg
    Oct 23, 2008 @ 07:07:17

    This is one of those authors who I have to on my TBR list to read someday but just haven’t managed to yet. I will though…eventually.

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  4. MS Jones
    Oct 23, 2008 @ 08:26:51

    This sounds fascinating – more than the usual historical romance ramen, which is so often squarely constructed around the lifestyles of the rich and titled with never any consideration of people who had to actually work to survive.

    I don’t care for first-person-POV-told tales but your review is very persuasive. Will add to TBR pile.

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  5. DS
    Oct 23, 2008 @ 08:36:41

    This is one of my favorite authors. I’m sorry that she hasn’t published anything new in years but I do keep her novels handy on my shelf for rereading.

    As for female artists, they were not at all unknown in the Tudor court, usually the daughters or sisters of established male artists and might be illuminators or minaturists, but it was not impossible.

    History as taught by romance is often so strait jacketed.

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  6. Lauren Willig
    Oct 23, 2008 @ 08:39:12

    Yay! I’m so glad to see Judith Merkle Riley on “Dear Author.” She’s one of my favorite authors of all time. Of all her books, “Serpent Garden” is probably my least favorite (I’d put in a plug for “The Oracle Glass”), but that still earns it a place on my keeper shelf. She’s brilliant at exposing all the small absurdities of human nature, as well as honing in on the ideosyncracies of various time periods. Not to mention writing a really, really convincing romance. There’s a line in “Serpent Garden” where the hero, looking at the very petite heroine (who paints miniatures), comments that “God also works excellently well in small.” That just gets me every time.

    Okay, I’ll stop gushing now.

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  7. Keishon
    Oct 23, 2008 @ 10:26:18

    I am always looking for good historical fiction writers. I have yet to start Helen Hollick and I’ve two of hers to try. Will let you know. Thanks for the review and I cheered when I saw it was available in ebook.

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  8. Leah Hultenschmidt
    Oct 23, 2008 @ 11:14:36

    Thanks for this review, Jayne! I’ve always liked Riley and hadn’t heard about this one.

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  9. Jayne
    Oct 23, 2008 @ 14:03:49

    Lynne, that isn’t the cover listed at Fictionwise. And the heroine’s father was a Flemish painter. Wasn’t Holbein Flemish? I forget. Anyway, it does show the heroine’s red hair.

    Her father was a painter and taught her to paint. Her first husband only married her for her painting secrets. Most of the court does view her as an oddity, something almost unnatural. The other part sees her as something like a dwarf. There for their amusement and to be talked about.

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  10. Jayne
    Oct 23, 2008 @ 14:07:52

    This sounds fascinating – more than the usual historical romance ramen, which is so often squarely constructed around the lifestyles of the rich and titled with never any consideration of people who had to actually work to survive.

    Exactly. There are some wonderful scenes involving the train of the Princess Mary on her way to France to be married and how the little people had to basically slog their way to Dover, get crammed into whatever space they could find while they waited for the weather to change and allow them to embark. Then the mad scramble to get back home to England after King Louis dismisses most of Mary’s English entourage.

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  11. Jayne
    Oct 23, 2008 @ 14:10:20

    As for female artists, they were not at all unknown in the Tudor court, usually the daughters or sisters of established male artists and might be illuminators or minaturists, but it was not impossible.

    As I mentioned in my post above, this is exactly the case. There’s a funny bit about how Susanna and her nurse were living above the widow of another painter. This older woman and her grown daughter had a little business going – very illegal of course – that Susanna joins in after her first husband is killed.

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  12. Jayne
    Oct 23, 2008 @ 14:12:48

    Lauren, I love her books. Our reviews tags are showing up on the side like they used to – part of our current site problems. But if you look at the end of our reviews, you can click on the tags there and see which reviews are similar. I have three Riley books reviewed already and “The Oracle Glass” is one of them. Loved that one too.

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  13. colleen gleason
    Oct 23, 2008 @ 14:14:27

    I have always loved Judith Merkle Riley’s books, and this is one of my favorites–along with THE ORACLE GLASS.

    I love the way she combines humor and historical detail along with romance, mystery and even a bit of mysticism. Great books!

    (Funny enough, her first two [A VISION OF LIGHT and IN PURSUIT OF THE GREEN LION] I didn’t love as much as her later ones.)

    I would love to see new books from Riley, but, as someone else mentioned above, it doesn’t sound like she’s publishing anything new. I think I did hear about a third book–rather short, in fact–in the VISION OF LIGHT series, but since I didn’t like those as well, I never read it.

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  14. Jayne
    Oct 23, 2008 @ 14:19:14

    Keishon, I love that it’s in ebook form as well. Though only Mobi. Boo, hiss.

    Must now go look up who Helen Hollick is.

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  15. Jayne
    Oct 23, 2008 @ 14:21:17

    Colleen, I adored “Vision of Light.” The only reason I haven’t gone on and read the last two books in the series is I’ve been waiting – and waiting – and waiting – for them to be released in ebook form. I might just have to break down and buy print since it seems like I’m going to grow old before electronic versions are released.

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  16. SonomaLass
    Oct 23, 2008 @ 16:17:14

    Wow, I am amazed at the authors I have somehow missed knowing about! This sounds right up my alley, and I’m amazed (and a bit abashed) that this is the first I’ve heard of her work. Thanks, Jayne!

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  17. Lynne Connolly
    Oct 23, 2008 @ 17:36:14

    As for female artists, they were not at all unknown in the Tudor court, usually the daughters or sisters of established male artists and might be illuminators or minaturists, but it was not impossible.

    Name them. From my studies I haven’t come across any. Female musicians, amateurs, families who mixed paints and did the occasional underdrawing yes, but professional painters, I’m not sure. But the new, portable oil on panel techniques began to make it possible, even though the fresco still reigned supreme.

    Lynne, that isn't the cover listed at Fictionwise. And the heroine's father was a Flemish painter. Wasn't Holbein Flemish? I forget. Anyway, it does show the heroine's red hair.

    Holbein was Swiss, from Basel, but it’s now thought that his visit to England wasn’t just because he was a Protestant and Basel was a Catholic stronghold, but he had a woman in England. Two families.
    Sorry. It’s my academic subject, but I’ve never been able to write a book set in the era, though I’ve tried!
    But as I said, I’m sensitive about cover art right now, and I strongly suspect my reaction was due to that. I will definitely look out for this book, and I have the feeling from what you said that I’m going to enjoy it.

    Jane, will you ever review the wonderful Dorothy Dunnett Lymond Chronicles? Unbelievably amazingly good.

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  18. Jayne
    Oct 24, 2008 @ 06:38:46

    Holbein was Swiss, from Basel, but it's now thought that his visit to England wasn't just because he was a Protestant and Basel was a Catholic stronghold, but he had a woman in England. Two families.
    Sorry. It's my academic subject, but I've never been able to write a book set in the era, though I've tried!

    Never been able because no would publish it or never been able because it just didn’t work out? I’d buy it. But then Tudor era books seem to be the red headed stepchildren of Romance – sorry, couldn’t resist that pun.

    Jane, will you ever review the wonderful Dorothy Dunnett Lymond Chronicles? Unbelievably amazingly good.

    I first devoured these about 23 years ago when I was in college. “Unbelievably amazingly good” doesn’t begin to cover how wonderful this series is. It rawks for all time. A few years ago, some friends and I got together and (re)read book one (some of us were newbies and others were old hands). Loved it again. Would love to read the series again but they’re so long and so complex that they deserve to be slowly savored instead of rushed through.

    And there’s the problem. We get so many books offered to us for review and I buy so many on my own that I have print and electronic books piling up to the ceiling. I can’t help but feel slightly guilty about spending time going back and rereading a book I’ve already read in place of something new. Every now and then the urge hits me to pick up an old favorite but usually it’s something I can speed read or skim through – which isn’t how I want to reexperience Lymond. Maybe one day…

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  19. Lynne Connolly
    Oct 24, 2008 @ 06:59:01

    Never been able because no would publish it or never been able because it just didn't work out?

    It hasn’t worked out so far, the stories die on me. My specialist area is the development of secular iconography in art – sexy, eh?

    I first devoured these about 23 years ago when I was in college. “Unbelievably amazingly good” doesn't begin to cover how wonderful this series is. It rawks for all time.

    How about getting a brand new reader to the Lymond series, who will volunteer to blog about their experiences? I’d just like everybody to read the books, because they are just so good!
    There are scenes I can’t read without crying – the chess game, the library scene, the anvil scene, and I never cry when I read! The first time I read the Lymond Chronicles, when I got to the end I found the first book and started again. I don’t usually do that, either.

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  20. Marg
    Oct 24, 2008 @ 16:24:48

    I’d volunteer for that to do next year. I have been wanting to read Dunnett’s books forever

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  21. Keishon
    Oct 25, 2008 @ 13:40:35

    I’d love to read the Lymond Chronicles, too. One day. The books are long and I’m not complaining. A friend sent me the copy of the first book, so no excuses. I wish they were in ebook, however.

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  22. Grace
    Oct 26, 2008 @ 22:11:58

    I’d happily volunteer to read and blog about the Lymond Chronicles. I haven’t read that particular series by DD, but her King Hereafter is my ultimate desert island keeper.

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  23. Anita C.
    Oct 27, 2008 @ 03:50:02

    Hi, readers. Lovely to find this website. I’ve read romance avidly since colleage, but found so few fellow readers I could talk to about them. I did post something the first night I stumbled across “Dear Reader” – (this August, I think) about how much I loved Georgette Heyer, but I think I was at the end of the line of a dying string.

    Judith Merkle Riley brought my head up smartly. She’s a real favorite, and on my Book List (I’ve kept a list of every book I’ve read, since Jan. 1990) her stuff is listed as F (fiction), not R (romance).

    I’m going to have to disagree with Collen and say that her first two books about Margaret of Ashbury (“A Vision of Light” and “In Pursuit of the Green Lion”) were my favorites. I then had to wait YEARS for the third Margaret of Ashbury novel – It’s called “The Water Devil.”

    I recommend all her work to you, although some of the others were a little pedantic and longwinded in the middle, getting bogged down a bit with historial detail and long descriptions. But the characters are superb and unlike any you’ll find elsewhwere except, perhaps Mary Brown (“The Unlikely Ones”). Brown also often uses whimsey and magic where you don’t quite expect it.

    Ciao for now. (I’m in Seattle and it’s 1:45AM!)

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  24. Jayne
    Oct 27, 2008 @ 05:17:17

    Lynne, the chess scene leaves me in tears. The final scene of the series leaves me in tears. And I agree, Keishon, I wish they were available as ebooks. But til they are, I still have my trusty mmp editions from 20+ years ago.

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  25. Jayne
    Oct 27, 2008 @ 05:23:28

    Anita, welcome back. Feel free to comment on any post no matter how old as the website should let the author of the post know something has been added to the thread.

    I’d never heard of Mary Brown before but her stuff (as seen on Amazon) looks intriguing. Her books look more like fantasy.

    Your comments on the Margaret of Ashbury series are really lighting a fire under me to go ahead and get them.

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