Michaela Roessner, The Stars Dispose (Tor, 1997)
Michaela Roessner, The Stars Compel (Tor, 1999)

The rich promise of prosciutto cooking in wine, buckwheat polenta steaming, spit-roasted hare, songbirds basted with mustard, and, soothing the senses, the subtler perfumes of distilled cinnamon water and simmering almond milk drifted up through the open window from the kitchen courtyard below.
The Stars Dispose, prologue

Hungry? You will be.

In the first half of the sixteenth century, the de' Medici family is almost gone. Only one child of the legitimate line is left, little Caterina Maria Romola de' Medici. Florence is torn by internal factions. In the home of the great astrologer and physician Cosimo Ruggiero the Old, two young men learn their fathers' arts. One is Cosimo the younger, who studies his father's practices both mundane and arcane. The other, Tommaso Arista, is the hero of this duology, beginning with The Stars Dispose.

Tommaso is the son of Ruggiero's master chef and carver. His mother is one of the Befaninis, who have been cooks to the de' Medicis for generations. They have been hearth-witches even longer. This dual heritage leaves Tommaso in the middle of brewing conflicts both magical and martial.

Tommaso is befriended by Michelangelo Buonarotti, and apprenticed to the great artist's friend Nicolo de Pericoli, known as Il Tribolino. In Il Tribolino's bottega, or studio, Tommaso learns to blend visual arts with culinary. He also befriends some of the most important artists of the age. He survives the overthrow of the de' Medicis and Florence's return to a republic, an invasion of spirits, an outbreak of plague, and a siege. Through all of it, Tommaso and his family and friends work to keep Caterina de' Medici safe.

The Stars Compel picks up the story after the siege, as Tommaso, now fifteen, follows Caterina to Rome as her head chef. This volume focuses on the intrigues Caterina and Tommaso become enmeshed in as they struggle to permit Caterina to plan her own destiny. They strive against both earthly and otherworldly opponents who wish to use Caterina for their own ends, including His Holiness Pope Clement VII, who is Caterina's bastard cousin.

Throughout all of this, scattered like aniseed in a brigidini wafer, are glowing descriptions of the feasts and dishes prepared by Tommaso and his associates. Even a few lines of rich prose outlining these dishes is enough to set the mouth watering — and the stomach rumbling. Roessner even includes a good reference list for period cooking, some wonderful recipes in the backs of the books, and a brief glossary of food terms. Readers on diets should be warned: these books may incite cravings for rich foods.

While the feasts in these books are definitely one of their largest attractions, they are by no means the only one. Roessner's prose is as lyrical when describing personalities, architecture, and art as when describing subtleties and entrées. She has obviously put a great deal of research into the period, although she doesn't necessarily hesitate to tweak events if the story requires it. Mostly, however, she doesn't seem to need to, as she speculates mainly on motivations and details.

The two magical styles she depicts, the high magics of the Ruggieros and the hearth magics of the Befanini, are believably constructed and well-balanced. The rituals of the astrologers draw on the occult texts of the period, while the stregheria is built from folk magics, kitchen traditions, and Leland's Aradia: The Gospel of the Witches.

While the numerous characters and frequent duplication of names that occur because of the historical setting are occasionally confusing, Roessner does a good job keeping them all distinct. She also provides a careful listing of characters and their relationships.

Historical fantasies sometimes pay so little attention to the setting that they disappoint readers who are familiar with it. As often, they pay so much attention to those same details — and fail to give explanations for them — that they confuse readers who know little of history. Roessner achieves a nice balance, giving details of life and custom, but putting them gently into context in such a way that they rarely disrupt the flow of the narrative. She also includes things we know as historical fact as bits of juicy gossip: "The English king proclaims himself 'Defender of the Faith,' but I've heard he'll leave the church to marry his twelve-fingered strega."

This duology contains a bit of something for everyone: magic, intrigue, politics, battle, and romance. It avoids having such a preponderance of one of these qualities over the others that it limits itself, and the elements balance and hang together nicely.

Astra declinant, non necessitant.
The stars dispose, they do not compel.

[Rebecca Scott]

Michaela Roessner has an inviting Web site here.