– ‘The Magic of Wor(l)ds’ blog is a hobby, reviews and other bookish stuff on this site are done for free. –
Today I’m on the ‘The Poison Keeper’ blogtour, organized by The Coffee Pot Book Club.
To promote this book I have an excerpt, but before I let you read it first some ‘basic’ information.
About the Author :
Deborah Swift lives in the north of England and is a USA Today bestselling author who has written fourteen historical novels to date. Her first novel, The Lady’s Slipper, set in 17th Century England, was shortlisted for the Impress Prize, and her WW2 novel Past Encounters was a BookViral Millennium Award winner.
Deborah enjoys writing about ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances, and most of her novels have been published in reading group editions. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from Lancaster University and is a mentor with The History Quill.
Book Title: The Poison Keeper
Author: Deborah Swift
Publication Date: 18th May 2021
Publisher: Quire Books
Page Length: 394 Pages
Genre: Historical Fiction
Aqua Tofana – One drop to heal. Three drops to kill.
Giulia Tofana longs for more responsibility in her mother’s apothecary business, but Mamma has always been secretive and refuses to tell Giulia the hidden keys to her success. When Mamma is arrested for the poisoning of the powerful Duke de Verdi, Giulia is shocked to uncover the darker side of her trade.
Giulia must run for her life, and escapes to Naples, under the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, to the home of her Aunt Isabetta, a famous courtesan. But when Giulia hears that her mother has been executed, and the cruel manner of her death, she swears she will wreak revenge on the Duke de Verdi.
The trouble is, Naples is in the grip of Domenico, the Duke’s brother, who controls the city with the ‘Camorra’, the mafia. Worse, her Aunt Isabetta, under Domenico’s thrall, insists that she should be consort to him – the brother of the man she has vowed to kill.
Based on the legendary life of Giulia Tofana, this is a story of hidden family secrets, and how even the darkest desires can be vanquished by courage and love.
From Chapter 2
The ship berthed in Naples early, so when they arrived it was just after dawn, the sun still a pinkish blur, hanging low in an egg-blue sky. Giulia was awed by Mount Vesuvius, which was almost purple in this light. It stood motionless and benign, as if no fiery breath could spurt from its jaws, even though it had erupted less than eighteen months ago, raining torment on everything below. Today, Naples was bustling with traders, despite the fact the whole city could be buried tomorrow under red-hot lava if the fire god willed it.
Giulia drank it all in, her head turning from side to side so as not to miss any detail. Cats strolled from the alleys to stretch out on the warm flagstones, horses and carts trundled lazily by with workers on their way to the wheatfields.
Sister Simona marched them through the narrow streets with their tall shuttered houses, with a ‘Keep up. Keep up!’ to her gaggle of followers. Sister Teresa and Sister Marthe were painfully slow walkers. ‘It’s near Il Mercato,’ Sister Simona said, after a quarter hour of walking, her cheeks flushed with exertion. ‘An area of wealthy merchants. There are many beautiful palazzi close to the market. Your aunt must be a wealthy woman.’
‘I don’t know,’ Giulia said. ‘I’ve never met her.’
Sister Simona glanced at her two companions, and frowned. ‘Then we will come and meet this aunt of yours,’ she said.
After a little more walking, and pleas from Sister Marthe, ‘Please, slow down!’ they came to a stop outside a long avenue of houses fronting the square, where traders were already beginning to set up for market.
‘Is this the one?’ Giulia asked, surprised. They were standing before a lofty white stone villa, with high arched windows and a balcony with an ornate ‘goose-breast’ balustrade. A sign in curvaceous script read, ‘Villa Bianca’.
‘Imp…imposing.’ Sister Marthe was so breathless it was the only word she could manage.
Up two stone steps to a vast double door, with a cartouche above carved with twining leaves, and urns of overblown flowers and fruit. It seemed so strange to arrive anywhere without Mamma. Giulia was intensely aware of her lack of proper luggage; that no-one had dressed her hair, and that despite her rich gown, now somewhat crumpled, she was to all intents a beggar on the doorstep. It was intimidating. She took a breath, took hold of the heavy brass ring and knocked on the door.
No answer. The house remained shuttered. Sister Simona pushed past her to knock again, harder, but when there was no answer, she tried the door. It was open. ‘Come along.’
The nuns escorted Giulia inside, into a dark hallway. Marble underfoot, and gilded paneling. It was shuttered, but a heavy scent of perfume, like the pungent scent of lilies, hung in the air. Giulia breathed it in. So different from the sharp smell of physic at home.
‘Excuse me,’ called Sister Simona into the echoing hall. ‘Is anyone there?’
‘Buongiorno?’ Giulia called, louder.
Suddenly they were surrounded. Servants, obviously come straight from their beds, appeared bearing candles and lanterns.
‘What do you want?’ A tight-faced serving woman wearing a plain cambric nightshift, her hair in a long braid under a cap, stood barring their way, her hand curled around a candle. She was obviously the housekeeper in charge.
‘Beg pardon, but we are seeking Isabetta Boveri,’ Giulia said, smiling hopefully. ‘She’s my aunt.’
The servants looked at her askance. ‘Too early. She sees no-one before noon,’ the housekeeper said.
‘Then we’ll wait.’ Sister Marthe, glad of the excuse, plumped down on the only chair in the hall.
‘All of you?’ The housekeeper looked down her nose at the nuns.
Giulia turned to Sister Simona. ‘There’s really no need for you to wait. You’ve been more than kind.’
At that moment a door clicked open upstairs, and a woman’s imperious voice came down. ‘Can’t a woman get any sleep? What’s all that noise? Alessa! What in the devil’s going on?’
‘Your niece, mistress. She’s here in the hall.’
‘Niece?’ the voice said. ‘Don’t talk nonsense. I have no niece. My family disowned me, twenty-five years since.’
A stab of alarm. Would she be turned away? The nuns looked to each other, frowning.
A moment later a woman rushed down the stairs in a flurry of yellow silk, causing the candles to waver in the draught. Sister Simona gaped and the other nuns took a step back.
‘Where is this niece?’ The woman, a taller, thinner version of her mother, looked from Giulia to the sisters. ‘And who on earth thought it a clever idea to admit these nuns?’
‘Pardon us,’ Sister Simona said. She stood up calmly, her shoulders braced. Anyone else would have wilted under the flashing eyes of the new arrival. ‘Are you Signora Boveri?’
‘Of course I’m Isabetta Boveri. How dare you wake me at this hour?’
‘My apologies for the intrusion,’ Sister Simona said, ‘We are leaving, as soon as we make sure Giulia is safe. Her mother left her to travel alone.’
‘So like Theofania,’ Aunt Isabetta said. ‘No consideration for anyone else.’
Giulia stepped forward. ‘I’m Theofania’s daughter, Giulia. I’m glad to meet you. I’ve heard a lot about you.’ A lie, but she was anxious to make a good impression.
Aunt Isabetta’s face froze. She looked her up and down, her voice came out in a whisper, ‘But that’s impossible. You can’t be Giulia. Giulia’s a child.’
‘Not any more, Aunt Isabetta. I’m twenty three.’
‘No. Let me look at you.’ She stared at her face as if she might see through it. ‘Yes, yes, you have our look,’ she said, as if to reassure herself. ‘The same widow’s peak in the hair, the same pointed chin.’
‘Aunt Isabetta, I’m sorry we could not give you more notice of my arrival in Naples, but Mamma said you’d be glad to give me a place to stay.’
‘She sent you here?’ She shook her head. Then she turned and paced, a frown on her face. ‘But she never wanted us to meet, she said… oh, never mind what she said.’
She was slimmer than Mamma, and her face was painted in the style of a woman much younger, though the wrinkles round her eyes showed her age to be past forty. Her opulent dressing-robe was made up of swathes of yellow-dyed silk, the sleeves trimmed with gold point, and the neck tied in an elaborate bow. Beneath, she caught a glimpse of a lawn nightgown, and a garter but no stocking. Giulia stared. Aunt Isabetta was wearing jewellery to bed.
‘Why?’ Isabetta asked. ‘Why would she send you to me after all this time?’
The Magic of Wor(l)ds