This third book in the Fairmile series returns us to the heart of the Reekie family via the enjoyable villainess, Livia da Ricci, who continues to scheme her way to the top. In this case, she befriends Mary of Modena, wife to the unfortunate James II, whose public Catholicism wrecked the stability of the Stuart Restoration.
Livia had previously left her son, Matthew, in the care of the Reekies, a newly prosperous commercial family. Livia returns to claim her son and uses him in her game of financial and social survival, disrupting the Reekie family’s happiness and drawing them into the dangerous finale of James II’s reign. As a result, Alinor Reekie is able to return to the Foulmire estate as gentry, not poor tenant, and her ancient love affair with Livia’s estranged husband now finds closure. Alinor’s principled brother, Ned Ferryman, who escaped to America after the failure of English Republicanism, shows us the genocide and enslavement of indigenous peoples through his rescue of ‘Rowan’ of the Pokanoket, the People of the Dawnlands. His return to London with her begins another episode of his continuing fight against political tyranny, then a new fight against the slave traders of Barbados.
Philippa Gregory allows us to see and feel the past through everyday details. Her method of short scenes and the constant flux of locations helps the pacing, as brief events drive the direction of the story. Livia provides needed tension, but I would also have liked to have spent more time with other characters, who are too lightly sketched. Livia exemplifies female power in a man’s world, but some of her machinations stretch the reader’s credulity a little too far—although she is well worked into the old chestnut of the baby in the warming pan conspiracy at the Queen’s childbed.