Wolves in Winter

Written by Lisa Hilton
Review by Lucinda Byatt

Hilton’s latest novel, Wolves in Winter, is the first of a trilogy set in Renaissance Italy. The scene is set by the subtitle on the front cover: “alchemy, poison, intrigue – in the Court of the Medici”, but that’s just the half of it.  Hilton has researched extensively into the period, and she conjures up a spellbinding tale of Mura, whose mother came from the far north and whose father, Samuel Benito, is a respected Arab bookseller in Toledo. When her widowed father falls foul of the Spanish Inquisition, his young daughter escapes but is eventually sold into slavery and taken to Florence, where she becomes Mora, a lowly kitchen maid in the great palace of Piero de’ Medici, the weakest link in the line of great Medici bankers, the virtual rulers of Florence.

Mora’s struggle to regain some degree of independence eventually leads to her recognition by none other than the great Neoplatonist, Marsilio Ficino.  These are the years of Savonarolan Florence and the great French invasion: the quest for knowledge leads across hazardous pathways, especially for an outsider, a girl, and moreover one reputed to have unearthly, demonic powers. After the Medici fall, Mora eventually finds herself in Forlì, where she shares the destiny of Caterina Sforza.  Hilton’s research into Caterina Sforza’s nemesis, Cesare Borgia, provides a fascinating insight into the malevolent son of Pope Alexander VI.

Minor slips (rowans would be difficult to find growing in Rome) do not mar this fascinating story in which violent political events come alive and are recounted with verve and skill. Florence will almost certainly feature in Mura’s subsequent adventures, but so might Rome or even Milan or Venice: Hilton’s next two books will certainly be on my reading list.