Wolves in Winter by Lisa Hilton

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RATING: 2.5/5

BLURB: “Italy, 1492. Five-year-old Mura is a strange and bewitching child. Daughter of a Nordic mother and Spanish father, she has been tutored in both Arabic learning and the ancient mythology of the North. But when her widower father is taken by the Inquisition, Mura is sold to a Genoese slaver. In the port of Savona, Mura’s androgynous looks and unusual abilities fetch a high price. She is bought as a house slave for the powerful Medici, arriving in Florence as the city prepares for war against the French. When the family are forced to flee, Mura finds herself gifted to the notorious Lioness of Romagna, Countess Caterina Sforza. Beautiful, ruthless and intelligent, the Countess is fascinated by Mura’s arcane knowledge. As the Lioness educates her further in the arts of alchemy, potions and poisons, Mura becomes a potent weapon in the Machiavellian intrigues of the Renaissance court…”

REVIEW: I must start this review by clarifying that, despite the poor rating I have given this novel as a whole, I did find the first third of the book extremely gripping and was instantly hooked. Mura is introduced to us as an unusual, mystical  child, who escapes with a prostitute as her home and her father go up in flames at the hands of the Inquisition. From then on Mura suffers a series of hardships, including a harsh rape in the brothel, the supposed death of her only friend, a young clerk named Cecco, and the witnessing of many atrocities of war than even the reader cannot entirely erase from their minds. There were many elements of the book, however, that I felt were not sufficiently explained or dealt with in enough detail, and this is perhaps where I began to wander and lose interest. For example, Mura is described as having some kind of mystical power; the visions she has permeate the novel in a disjointed and metaphorical fashion that often makes them difficult to understand. There are hints of associations with demons and associations with wolves, yet we never fully find out the extent of Mura’s powers, nor do we really see much of them, despite the fact that every other character in the novel makes a hugely big deal out of them. The only proper sign of power we see from Mura is in the potions she mixes in Caterina Sforza’s household; but this was a talent held by many wise women at the time, and does not make Mura particularly unusual for the period. There were also frequent mentions by Mura of some sort of genital deformity that was never clearly explained, though it was, however, hinted that Mura would not be able to have intercourse or give birth. Yet, later in the novel she becomes the mistress of the captor of her mistress, Caterina. I was quite puzzled by this, though by this point in the novel my attention had begun to wander so I may have missed the explanation that was surely there somewhere. Although the presence of these issues did diminish my enjoyment of the book, there were many things I liked about the novel. It has a very satisfactory conclusion involving my favourite plotline of the book, that of Mura’s growing closeness with the clerk Cecco, and the battle scenes and war crimes committed were written with such a level of clarity and detail that I found them truly shocking and haunting. If Hilton had perhaps explained some of the more complicated elements of the book a little more clearly, I feel that I would have enjoyed it more.

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