The Serpent Garden
Riley’s exquisite tale begins in England in 1514 and follows the life of Susanna Dallet, daughter of a Flemish artist. Susanna is widowed when her unsavory husband is murdered by his lover’s spouse. Before his death, Mr. Dallet was part of a group who recovered a long lost manuscript that threatens to rip apart the French monarchy. Because of her husband’s role, Susanna is unknowingly thrust into peril, caught in the middle of conspirators who will stop at nothing to possess the complete manuscript.
As a widow, Susanna is left to make her own way in the world, no easy feat in the 16th century. She begins by painting less than innocent Biblical scenes and portraits in miniature. Soon she is introduced to Cardinal Wolsey, who employs her and sends her to France with Princess Mary Tudor’s wedding party to paint the festivities of the union of Mary and the aging Louis XII.
Susanna possesses an extraordinary gift for painting in miniature and is welcomed into the French court, a place full of schemes at every turn. Riley adds a good dose of the supernatural to the story with a demon named Belphagor who was released when the manuscript was unearthed. Belphagor’s goal is to cause chaos, and Susanna becomes a target for the demon’s wrath because of her association with the manuscript.
Riley packs quite a bit into the novel and achieves a nice blend of romance, intrigue, politics, and fantasy. The narration alternates between Susanna Dallet and third- person viewpoints which may take a bit to get used to, but soon readers will find themselves engrossed in the tale. Susanna’s sense of humor and the depictions of the French court are only two of the aspects that make this a novel not to be missed.