Emilie is a compelling novel set during the wars between Catholics and Huguenots in 16th-century France. Emilie, the daughter of a Huguenot nobleman, resists the plans of her parents and her cruel brother Pierre to marry her off to Pierre’s friend, the evil Marcus Daval. She wants to study herbal medicine and become a healer, and secretly takes lessons from the gardener Thomas. Several members of Emilie’s family are killed in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. She manages to escape and finds refuge at a monastery, where she hears news of another massacre of Huguenots. She must decide whether to treat the victims and risk falling into the hands of Marcus and Pierre, who have converted to Catholicism to save their lives, or to flee France.
Emilie is a sympathetic, complex, and highly intelligent heroine who rebels against her strict religious upbringing and longs for the type of education usually reserved for boys. Ingrid Ramsdale brings her characters to life and draws the reader into Emilie’s journey, both her adventures as she attempts to escape from France and her internal journey of self-discovery as she comes to realize that not all Catholics are bad and that her own side has committed atrocities as well. She experiences great loss but becomes a stronger person at the end, realizing how complex the world is. I also loved several of the secondary characters. I especially want to mention Madame Gruelle, Emilie’s governess, whose stern exterior hides a heart of gold as well as several secrets, and Brother Nicholas, a man of the world turned monk and herbalist, who reminds me of one of my favorite characters of all time: Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael. The subtitle, “The Journey Begins,” suggests there may be a sequel, and I would look forward to Emilie’s further adventures.