Friday, 18 January 2013

Review - The King's Agent by Donna Russo Morin

Publisher:                     Kensington Publishing
Year:                           2012
Price in sterling:            £8.41
Format:                        Paperback
Pages:                          438
ISBN:                          978-0758246820

Renaissance Italy is a hotbed of artistic superiority, of devious plots between city states and a time when men must make a choice as to which side to stand should war come to their land.  Battista della Palla is such a man.  From the outside he is an avid collector of art, a patron to the Renaissance movement and friend to Michaelangelo the celebrated artist.  But he is also an agent of the King of France who uses him to steal priceless treasures in return for the promised protection of his beloved Florence.

When a task so dangerous is given to him by his protector, Battista begins searching for a hidden painting by Giotto.  Using Dante’s famous tome “The Commedia” as a road map, Battista finds himself allied with a beautiful maiden, the secluded and sheltered Aurelia.  Together they fight through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise to retrieve their prize.


If you want to become immersed in an alien world, filled with wonder, danger, beauty, genius and full on excitement then this is the book for you.  Donna Russo Morin writes from the heart and you can tell that she hasn’t researched the period for the pure purpose of conveying a story but that it is a passion she holds in her heart.  Her knowledge of the era, the deep love she has for the Renaissance movement is something that she has obviously studied and researched for many years and her exceptional writing makes this a book not only to be enjoyed, but devoured.

The plot is simple, but the creation of a wonderfully colourful world inhabited by characters whose love of art and adventure sets this book apart from the norm.  It has influences from the 21st Century, the quests are video-game-like involving the negotiation of underground catacombs filled with deadly traps and mind stretching puzzles, yet it never loses its identity as a medieval historical adventure.  The fictional characters are almost indistinguishable from the real life people weaved into this strikingly original story, another testament to the author’s talent for writing.

The King’s Agent is simply brilliant.  A book that paints vivid images in your mind as you read is always a joy and Donna Russo Morin delivers with aplomb.  I give The Kings Agent 5 Crosses.   
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I am also granting Donna Russo Morin The Golden Hammer & Anvil Shield for “The King’s Agent”.  The way she has conveyed the beauty of art, the passion of her subject matter and the quality of her writing makes this book exceptional.  This is a perfect example of how words can paint pictures in your mind and transport you half a millennia back in time!

Find out more about Donna Russo Morin in my exclusive interview & win a copy of "The King's Agent" in my latest giveaway!

Renaissance Woman - An interview with Donna Russo Morin

Donna Russo Morin is a lady after my own heart.  She loves historical fiction and videogames and is a superb writer whose stories of the renaissance era are filled with colour, adventure and intrigue.  I review her latest book "The Kings Agent" here and she very kindly took time out from her latest writing project to answer some questions for Sir Read-A-Lot's loyal subjects.

1.       How did you develop the story of The King’s Agent?

Ah, I love this story almost as much as I love the story itself. I was doing research for my third book, To Serve a King, which entailed a great deal of study on Francois I. For those that may not know, Francois was the king of France when Henry VIII was king of England. But he was also the king so obsessed with art, that his collection became the inception of the museum we now call the Louvre. It was during this research that I found true life personage, Battista della Palla; he was Francois’ art agent, ‘the king’s agent’. He was mandated, by the king, to bring to France the great works of the Italian Renaissance painters, by whatever means necessary. Battista, his character and mission, so captivated me that I felt he deserved his own book. I had planned to ‘create’ a relationship between Battista and Michelangelo so that I could feature the artist in the book. It was as if I had hit the lottery when I found letters between the two men; letters that revealed a strong and loving bond between them.

Now, add into the mix the fact that all of my books are semi-biographical in nature in that the theme reflects a strong condition or emotion I am feeling at the time I’m developing the story. Aurelia, Battista’s female, fictional counterpart, is a woman who longs for nothing more than to shake off the shackles of a life devoted to duty, one overburdened by that duty.  The girl just wants to have fun. When she is swept up into Battista’s quest…a romp that takes us across the Italian countryside and exposes her to some life-threatening danger, she does just that…the girl has fun while still serving her life’s purpose. I guess a reflection of my hope for myself.

2.       How did you come to create the character of Battista della Palla and his band of brothers?

Well, as I said, Battista was a real man. The more I learned of Battista, the more I learned he was a charismatic, gutsy, larger-than-life rogue of a man. A man whom women want and men want to be. A man who, through his charm and his own largesse, would easily gather a group of spirited men about him. Now that I think about (truly this is just occurring to me as I write) he is the George Clooney character in the Ocean’s Eleven series of movies.  I love men and I love the type of comedic camaraderie that can exist in a group of men who live on life’s edge. It was just this type of colleagues that I hoped to create.

3.       Historical adventures are a favourite of mine and I really enjoyed the tasks you created for Battista and Aurelia to undertake.  How were they created?

I smile at this question for it is yet another facet of this story that I myself enjoyed. Like you, I adore historical adventures. So, we have Aurelia who is conceived out of my own desire to just have some fun. One of my favourite ways to have fun is to play video games; it asks nothing of me but the use of my own wiles. My favourite game is The Legend of Zelda, an action adventure, questing type of game and I knew I wanted to pay homage to the game in the book. The symbol of the game is called a triforce (which I now have as a very small but poignant tattoo). It is a triple triangle within a triangle, symbolic of wisdom, courage, and strength. For me it also stands for the Law of Attraction—Ask, Believe, Receive—as well as the triangle of me and my two sons, three who survived a very difficult situation together. Throw that all into the mix and I knew I wanted Battista and Aurelia’s quest to come in three parts. What greater three part artistic achievement is there than Dante’s Divine Comedy? And there it was…that magnificent aha moment that writers encounter now and again, if they’re blessed. The tasks or challenges Battista and Aurelia face, then, are an amalgamation…a convergence with pieces of the three canticles of the Comedy…Inferno, Purgatory, and Hell…with a sprinkling of the puzzles found in The Legend of Zelda.

4.       Are you writing anymore stories involving Battista?

He is one of those characters who do possess infinite possibilities. At book club appearances and other such functions, I have been asked about his earlier years…how he came to be the rapscallion as depicted in The King’s Agent. My mind is tickled by the idea and I’ve put that sentence in my journal of ‘Possible Stories.’ (I have five journals, that one is dedicated to the story ideas that jump into my mind like rabbits in springtime). The answer, then, is perhaps.

5.       How easy did you find it to weave some of history’s most famous people into a fictional setting where they actually influenced your plot rather than just appeared as supporting characters?

In my particular methodology of writing, I come up with the basic idea for the story and then I research and research and research, ad nauseum, the period and people in which I will set them. I then build—or flesh out my story—to work around the real life people and events. In other words, I don’t create a story set in stone and force the historical characters to work with my story; I force my story to work with the period and the people and let the truth effect my plot.

6.       Can you tell me how you began writing and what drew you to writing historical novels?

I literally can’t remember a time when I wasn’t a writer. I’ve been writing stories since I possessed the ability to write, at first silly childlike stories of bunnies and playful things. I turned eleven in 1969, the Summer of Love, and my writing turned to anti-war poetry and treatises on equality for women (I’d have burned my bra had they made one small enough to fit me). In the mid-seventies, a new author took the book world by storm, and I followed the King down the twisted, intestine-strewn path that is horror. I spent many years in this perverse world, the gore becoming tempered with mythical creatures as I discovered C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. (Years later two of those horror shorts appeared in critically acclaimed, if poorly read anthologies.) During these nebulous years, I also managed to obtain a couple of degrees at my state university.

In the years between, I mapped out a fairly successful freelance career while working a ‘day job’ in public relations and advertising. In addition to inclusion in the two anthologies, I was on staff at a local magazine, and my book review career, which began in 1988, hit a pinnacle of sixty published reviews, including publication in The Milwaukee Journal, The Hartford Courant, and Foreword Magazine.

Novel writing was always the ultimate goal. It took me seven years to write my first novel--giving birth to two boys at the same time--a medieval fantasy liberally laced with horror. It sits in my hope chest still, though I still have ‘hope’ for it.

In the summer of 2002, I came down with what I thought was the flu. After two and a half years and more doctors than I care to remember, I was diagnosed with Lyme Disease. Six weeks later, my father passed away from cancer. I retreated from the world and into my books and writing. I re-watched The Three Musketeers (1973 version) and remembered how much I loved it and all the Musketeer stories. I remembered how I wanted to look like Rachel Welch/Constance (who doesn’t?) but I wanted to be Michael York/D’Artagnan. The idea for The Courtier's Secret, my first book, was born. It was a startling realization that I wasn’t writing what I most loved to read…historical fiction. It started as early as middle school and the first reading of Gone With The Wind and continued on in college with works by Leon Uris, James Michener, John Jakes, and Rosalind Laker. Finding ‘my voice’ in that manner is what finally brought me publication. While being treated for the Lyme, I conducted nine months of research and wrote the first draft in nine weeks.  The rest, as they say is ‘history’.

7.       Like me you are a videogame fan.  What games do you like to play and which console do you play on?

I do prefer console play and I am a bit of a Nintendo devotee, which is the only place you can find The Legend of Zelda. Though with two sons, young men of 19 and 22 in college but still living home, all three systems—Ninetendo, PS3, and XBOX reside in our home. I am most partial to action adventure games; I favour the combination of puzzle-solving, treasure finding, and fighting games to the straight first person shooter (though I do like simple shooting at times) or the simple side-scrolling platforms. I guess there is an appreciation of sorts, as a writer, to the games where in depth world-building was taken into consideration in the conception of the game. Hmmm, let’s see…history lover, serious video game player…yes, I wear my ‘Nerd’ badge proudly.

8.       What advice would you give to aspiring historical fiction novelists?

Make sure that you love the genre and that this is truly ‘your voice.’ There’s that old, archaic adage which states that you should write what you know (a ridiculous notion or there wouldn’t be historical fiction, would there). But I cannot stress enough that a historical fiction writer knows their topic completely. Research, research, research. Gather three to four times the amount of material than you will ever use in your novel. Not only will this make your story richer—for you will have a profusion of information from which to pick out the best—but it will also make the writing process move quicker; you won’t be forced to stop writing to gather more information. And flow—being in the ‘zone’ and not having to step out—is crucial, I believe, to good writing. Also write about the periods and places that interest you the most; don’t just jump on the Tudor wagon (or other such wagon) just because you believe it is the historical fiction that will say. Write your best book and it will say and it just might become the ‘next big era.’

9.       Fun Question – which three characters from history would you invite for dinner?

Thomas Jefferson, Marie Antoinette, and Mary Magdalene. In the case of Mr Jefferson, I would love to hear his version of the events that so captivate me. In the case of Marie Antoinette, I long to discover her side of the story; to allow her the chance to separate myth from fact. As for Mary Magdalene, she was, aside from all else, a mother who gave her life for that of her child. To speak with her, to empathize with the sacrifice, to console her, I would consider a great gift. (In a complete cheat, Galileo, Michelangelo, and Ben Franklin would also get a seat at my table, or the party would not be complete.)

10.   Fun Question – at which event in history would you like to have been a fly on the wall?

The American Revolution (oh, perhaps that won’t go over too well with this particular audience). But I am in awe of what the people of that moment in time accomplished. And actually, I would have liked to have been a part of any revolution, such as those that took place in France. Or the one that brought the wall down in Germany. It may be the influence of the ‘60s in which my childhood took place, perhaps it is my own passionate spirit…but I firmly believe that we, the citizens of the world, need to be the catalyst and the tools for its betterment, not just our own.

Thank you Donna for a candid and inspiring interview!  Head over to my Giveaway Page and leave a comment to win your very own copy of "The King's Agent"!

Friday, 4 January 2013

Behind The Queen's Vow - A Guest Post by C.W. Gortner

I am starting the new year with a first.  I am proud to hand over the keys of my Virtual Castle to best-selling author C.W Gortner!

Christopher is half-Spanish by birth and his love of medieval Europe is clearly demonstrated in his novels.  His latest paperback "The Queen's Vow" was released in the UK yesterday and recants the early life of Queen Isabella of Spain.  So without further ado, please welcome Christopher to my Court of Historical Fiction! 

Behind The Queen’s Vow: Isabella of Castile and her Myth

Isabella of Castile is one of those historical characters who generate strong reactions. When I began to tell my friends that I was writing about her, I heard everything from, “Ooh, you’re so brave to tackle her” to “Didn’t she burn everyone?” to a flat-out: “She was a monster.”

I’ve always been fascinated by famous women with controversial reputations, as evidenced by my previous novels about Catherine de Medici and Juana la Loca, who, coincidentally, is Isabella’s daughter. But I must admit, while growing up in Spain all I heard about Isabella (in Spain, she’s properly known as Isabel) was that she was this near-saintly queen who united Arag√≥n and Castile through her marriage to King Ferdinand, conquered Granada, sent Columbus to find the New World, and . . . well, that was about it. I’d also visited her tomb in Granada several times as a child, but I was more taken by the lurid fate of her willful daughter, Juana, the queen who went mad out of love— a fascination that eventually resulted in my first novel, The Last Queen.

It was while writing that book that I first did significant research into Isabella’s life. I focused mainly on her later years and found myself deeply affected by her struggles. She outlived two of her beloved children only to die at the age of fifty-three, leaving behind a bereaved nation and uncertain future. No one could argue that she was both stoic and indefatigable in her commitment to her country. But, who was she before she became queen? How did becoming the first female ruler of a united Spain define and shape those later years? I was fascinated by these questions, and evidently so were many of the readers of The Last Queen, who sent e-mails and letters asking me to write more about Isabella.

Nevertheless, when I finally decided to do so, I knew I’d set myself a formidable task. For though she has all the hallmarks of a formidable heroine, Isabella is also shrouded by historical condemnation, often seen as the narrow-minded fanatic who gave rise to the Inquisition and callously evicted the Moors and Jews from Spain. Infamy clings to her, and as history has been revised by more enlightened times, she’s taken the brunt of it. I’d confronted historical calumny before with my characters, however, and my task as a writer is not to judge what happened but rather to reveal why. I also try my utmost to not view the past through the prism of the present. The world which Isabella of Castile knew was vastly different from our own, and its contradictions shaped her in unexpected ways.

First and foremost, Isabella was exceptional for her era.  Publicly and privately, she fought against the dictates of society and its prohibitive limitations on women, intent on forging her own path. She also faced a unique set of circumstances that had been the bane of her predecessors—a fractured kingdom weakened by centuries of strife, overlaid by an uneasy religious amalgam that made Spain both uniquely tolerant, and conversely, rife with divisiveness. Isabella inherited a land that was literally falling apart, in desperate need of unity if it was to survive the hostile encroachments of neighboring powers. Destined to become Spain’s architect, who would guide her new-born country into a new age, Isabella achieved the impossible. Yet, like so many rulers before and after her, she also made tragic mistakes.

The Queen’s Vow portrays the extraordinarily complex and fallible woman behind Isabella’s legend. From her forgotten youth when no one believed she was destined for greatness, to her frightening plunge into the cesspool of her half-brother’s court and the unexpected loss that propelled her into a dramatic fight for her throne, as well as her passion for a prince she was forbidden to wed and her courage as a neophyte ruler, which molded her into the queen who irrevocably changed the world, this is a story of grandeur and passion, triumph and sacrifice. It is a story of a princess who defied every odd and took to battle, of a devoted wife and mother who endured heartbreaking betrayal, and of a devout woman secretly torn between faith and country. It is a story most of us have never heard.

Was Isabella of Castile everything that has been said about her? Or, has history only given us part of the truth?  I leave you to find out.

I sincerely hope you enjoy The Queen’s Vow.

Thank you for spending this time with me. To find out more about me and my books, please visit me at:

Read my review of The Queen's Vow here

Buy The Queen's Vow from my Amazon Store

Review - The Queen's Vow by C.W. Gortner

Publisher:    Hodder & Stoughton
Year:    2013 (UK Paperback)
Price (in Sterling):  £6.39 (Pb) / £4.99 Kindle
400 pages
ISBN:    978-144720808

"The Queen's Vow" tells the story of the early life of Isabella of Castille and begins as seen through the eyes of a four year old girl who does not yet understand the burden, or expectation, that will be her destiny.  As Isabella grows up, secluded from the Spanish Court due to the accession to the throne by her half-brother Enrique, she develops the qualities that make her a popular, beloved and flawed ruler.  Her marriage to Ferdinand of Aragon gives her the strength to follow her conscience and together they unite their domains and try to bring peace and prosperity to Spain.

She and Ferdinand endeavour to protect her people from the Grandees (Lords) who are taxing their subjects into poverty, and the Church which is adamantly enforcing their desire to bring religious unity to Spain.  Isabella is a devout queen but has reservations about the draconian methods proposed by the enigmatic Dominican monk, Tomas de Torquemada.  However, it becomes apparent that she cannot stop the Inquisition and so tries to limit its authority, much to Torquemada's chagrin.


The way to my heart with historical fiction is to create an atmospheric, evocative opening that urges you to continue reading.  A battle, a murder or a cataclysmic event may well provide a strong opening but rarely does a story maintain the early momentum.  I find that a more subtle beginning gives you a clearer picture, not only of the character and their predicament, but of the writer's expertise.

I am constantly amazed by writers who can narrate a tale in first person, but whose gender is the opposite of the character who is telling the story  To know the intricacies of another sex, the way they think and act, the way they dress and prepare themselves for court is one thing, but to convey it to the reader with seamless ease is another.

Christopher Gortner is a master story-teller, weaving superbly written fiction around an extensively researched historical backdrop.  You can actually hear Isabella's voice resonate through the centuries and, dare I say it, believe that Gortner's fictional creation is an accurate depiction of Spain's most famous queen.  and .  I feel this book is one that will become another runaway success, and deservedly so.  I thoroughly enjoyed it and award "The Queen's Vow" 4 Crosses !


Christopher Gortner has written an article, exclusively for Sir Read-A-Lot, to celebrate the release of The Queen's Vow! You can read it here.

Buy "The Queen's Vow" from the Sir Read-A-Lot Amazon Store

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Blog Tour - The Queen's Vow by C.W Gortner

The first event of 2013 is quite special as I am handing my blog over to best selling author CW Gortner.

Christopher (as I call him) is a fantastic writer whose published works have become best-sellers around the world and won him a huge following.  He writes about the medieval Europe and is half-Spanish by birth, so his new release "A Queen's Vow" is close to his heart.  It tells the story of Isabella of Castille, a fiercely loyal and devout Queen of Spain who was instrumental in the formation and development of The Spanish Inquisition.

You can read Christopher's guest post and my review of his book on Friday January 4th!

Tuesday, 1 January 2013