ElizaBeth Gilligan, Magic's Silken Snare (Silken Magic, #1) (DAW, 2003)
First off, a comment about covers.
The cover of this book is beautiful, if viewed up close. The style is lush, and almost renaissance-like. Most of the scene is shadowed, with only slivers of light cutting across the central figure.
From ten feet away, it blurs into a grey-brown nothingness. It is lovely as a piece of art, full of interesting small details (the face on the chair back, the landscape in the distance). But the purpose of cover art is not to be beautiful when studied carefully. It is to draw the eye of someone making a quick scan of the bookshelves from a few feet away. This cover will never stand out in a crowd of such books.
On the other hand, it may be a most suitable cover for this book. This novel, the first in a series, is full of just those kinds of details, interesting on their own, worthy of a close study but the whole of the book blurs into something generic. It's not ugly at all, it's even quite decent, but it simply does not stand out from the crowd.
Of course, part of the problem is bloat. The novel is 556 pages long, and could probably have been trimmed a hundred pages or so. This is a common problem in fantasy these days; this book is no worse than many best-selling compatriots, and better than many. That hardly pardons this novel for falling into the same trap. (Caveat: I am not saying all long fantasy novels are bloated, or vice versa. I can think of long novels where not a word is wasted, and short novels which desperately need to be trimmed down).
This is the story of Luciana, Duchessa di Drago and Araunya di Cayesmengri the woman in charge of the Romani's silk holdings, including a variety of important but difficult magics. She is a woman of both the gypsy world and the nobility of the island of Tyrrhia. Her husband Stefano is trying to take her duties as his own, for though he loves her passionately, he is unable to comprehend the freedom and ruling power the gypsies give their women.
When her sister is murdered and her body desecrated, Luciana wanders the Tyrrhian court, trying to put together the puzzle of the murder. In the meantime, Stefano uncovers a Catholic plot intended to turn their country into another puppet of the papacy. It soon comes clear that both plots are leading them to the same place, but their personal troubles make it hard for them to confide in one another, and almost impossible to collaborate.
The setting is well realised, mostly Italian Renaissance, with a few noteable changes; almost an alternate history of Sicily. The changes, including the systems of magic, are well thought out, and the consequences of those changes are explored at least a little in the background details. The author discusses the research in her introduction. Within the story itself, however, that research stays nicely in the background, and the setting is used to enhance the story, not bog it down.
The characters, though often flat in other ways, actually hold morals and beliefs that are derived from that setting more often than not an unusual thing, when most fantasy heroes live in quasi-medieval societies with 21st century attitudes. Part of this may, of course, be that the author has found a way to create a setting that itself allows for some 21st century morality to exist within her Renaissance-era world. Still, kudos to her for being able to give Luciana strong religious beliefs and motivations that are foreign, yet easy to empathise with. Better, she gives Stefano the attitude of his era, including the belief that the man is the ruler of his wife and her property, and still makes him a heroic figure, and sincere in his love for his "too-independent" woman. Many writers would have refused to allow one of the good guys to have attitudes considered politically incorrect in the 21st century, even if they would be common in the story's time period.
Unfortunately, Gilligan does not extend the courtesy of giving the villains any noticeable good traits. Bianca is a spoiled brat, the Conte Urbano is a caricature, and the lead villain, when finally revealed (though it's not much a surprise once it finally comes out), does everything but laugh maniacally. Although he has the advantage over most such villains; he's about as competent as the heroes.
The biggest villain, of course, is Catholicism. And this is an annoyance. Very few Catholics only one, to my recollection are portrayed as anything but hidebound, stiff-necked, and manipulative. Yet every Jew is a sympathetic figure, and every Gypsy. True, the story is set in the time when the Spanish Inquisition was in full power, but if a country can be conceived that is able to open its gates to all people and allow a refuge for persecuted peoples, a sympathetic Catholic should not be very hard.
The magical systems, both the good and the evil, are well thought out, including the revelation done not by lengthy diatribes, but by example, in an unusually subtle turn for this book of what tempts a magician to the path of evil.
The prose is workable, straining for poetic when it deals with the subtle and draining magic of the gypsies. The dialogue is realistic. The weakness in the prose comes not from how things are told, but what is told. Some background details are overexplained, while others are mentioned only in passing, many chapters before they become very relevant. Characters sit in privacy and mull, or mope, over their private problems, even when those problems are hardly changed from the last time they were alone and moping.
However, the worst flaw of the book lies in the politics and the plotting. Characters plot, but their plots are transparent and unsubtle. Characters spend weeks hunting for answers, but as often as not, trip over evidence by coincidence. The futile wandering in search of answers goes on far too long, and several supposed pieces of the puzzle seem to give the characters no more information than they already had. Nor are there any red herrings or other false leads there are too few leads to have even one be allowed to be wrong, even though the novel is long enough to easily accommodate a few more cast members and a few more plot twists. Nobody is accused who is not guilty to some degree. Nobody who is believed innocent is guilty. Every character is exactly what he or she seems to be; I kept waiting for anyone, good or bad, to reveal a different aspect, a motive other than the one on the surface. There are none. Only Luciana and Stefano, also the only characters to have even the beginnings of depth, seem at all troubled by contradictions, and even these are laid out in obvious terms for the reader.
Of course, some plot threads were concluded by the end of the book others wait until further installments of the series to come clear.
Still, there are many fine details in the book worth looking up, many individual incidents that caught and held my attention, and kept me reading to the end. It's only in the big picture that the story blurs back into indifference.