The Queen’s Prophet

Written by Dawn Patitucci
Review by Martha Hoffman

Gazing out from Velasquez’s Las Meninas, the enigmatic Maribarbola challenges the viewer with her thoughtful expression and genial dignity. She was one of numerous dwarves at the mid-17th century Spanish court. Brought there as curiosities, to entertain and to prophesy, they were treated as property but exempted from protocol.

This debut novel takes on the challenge of that gaze and imagines Mari’s backstory as the long-time companion of a learned German countess who trained her in science and observation. When her patroness dies, Mari gets a taste of independence working as a travelling seer at local markets, only to be sold to Queen Mariana of Spain as a good luck charm in the queen’s quest for a male child.

Life at the Spanish court is overwhelming for Mari, full of dancing dwarves, high protocol, and feuding factions. For all her supposed knowledge, she is not very good at judging people or accessing situations. Resolving again and again to serve only the queen, she goes around in circles making lucky pronouncements but bad choices. When a plot against the king emerges, she has the chance to redeem herself and to right a few wrongs.

Readers with a deeper knowledge of the Spanish court will be disappointed with the snapshot given here of bedding rituals, an embattled royal marriage, and the looming Inquisition. But the bigger problem is that no one is truly likeable: not the queen who bought Mari but has not earned her friendship; not the king burdened with sorrow who nonetheless has flagrant affairs and participates in mean tricks against his wife; not the only dwarf in the position to be her friend, Nicolasito, who Mari can’t bring herself to trust and with whom the historical Maribarbola shares the stage in Velasquez’s masterpiece.