The King’s Diamond

Written by Will Whitaker
Review by Marina Oliver

Richard Dansey, of a London merchant family, longs to escape from his domineering mother. He is obsessed with gems and wants to deal in them on his own behalf. When he hears rumours that King Henry VIII has a new mistress, he sets out to acquire jewels fit for a king to bestow upon his love. In Venice, he starts his collection, but he needs a superlative craftsman to cut and set them as they deserve. He sees a design by Benvenuto Cellini and follows him to Rome. There he encounters Hannah, a girl he has longed for since he was very young, whose father, a courtier, is in Rome on secret business which involves frequent audiences with the pope. Richard is frustrated by not knowing who the king’s new love is, and what jewels would become her.

This is the time when the great European powers are at war, and the Imperial army is heading for Rome. Richard is torn between the wish to make his fortune by having his gems set so that Henry cannot resist them, fear of the approaching armies, and a passionate desire to buy a fabulous diamond from a dying man.

This is one of the best first novels I have read this year. (The author has published three YA novels, but this is his first historical.) Whether describing the marvels of the various gems, Richard’s obsessive love of them, the excesses of Carnival, or the horrors of the sack of Rome, the author commands attention. The characters are real, perhaps a little flawed, but one wants them to succeed. There is a vast amount of historical detail, but it never obtrudes on the story and is itself fascinating. I’ll bet this becomes a bestseller.