The Embroidered Book by Kate Heartfield – an immense achievement of historical fiction, two queens and magic

The Embroidered Book by Kate Heartfield

This is a big book. In size, scope and ambition. It tackles a complex time in history, beginning in 1768, and a huge field of politics via a large cast of characters which for much of the book are divided between at least two settings. It is based around the lives of two remarkable women – Charlotte, who becomes the queen of Naples, and Antonie, who becomes Marie Antoinette, queen of France. The book is framed not by the normal bounds of historical fiction, but the secrets of magic which exist in spells, enchantments and danger. The magic which the two girls discover is costly; it demands real sacrifices which must be kept secret. This powerful and complex novel draws the reader in with its intoxicating mix of real historical events and alliances, physical details of places and furniture combined with the lives of two sisters influenced by a powerful mother, the Empress Maria Theresa who has spent her life ruling by strict standards imposed on her children and herself. The two girls realise that they are valuable for whom they will marry, as political pawns in a great game of succession, power and influence. While they are daunted by their future, they also know that they have powerful secrets contained in an embroidered book of spells, even if they soon realise that the effects of such spells are unpredictable and potentially dangerous. This book captivates the reader’s attention in every respect with family stories of children, difficult relationships and much more. I found it a tremendous read, and I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it. 

The book opens with the young Charlotte and Antoine in the august presence of their mother, “Empress Maria Theresa, sovereign of half of Europe”. Although her son, the girls’ brother Joseph, is the titular ruler, it is obvious to all where the real power lies. Antoine is painfully aware that her mother views her daughters as marriage material from infancy; apart from one they must marry for political alliances and security. When Antoine wishes that she could save her nervous and shy sister Josepha from having to marry the notorious Ferdinand of Naples it is not the idle wish of a young girl, but part of the great secret shared only with her sister Charlotte. Following the murder of a governess some time before, they have come into possession of a special book, beautifully embroidered, which contains spells. Not that they are at all certain of the writing it is full of; the spells take almost as much deciphering as gathering the ingredients or sacrifices that are necessary to attempt them. They may be physical objects such as hair, or written down memories that will disappear forever. The spells must be cast in a particular way, with care and thought, and usually enchant everyday objects to have an effect, such as gloves which force people to tell the truth, or reveal some secret. As the girls get more experienced their spells become more sophisticated, but even they cannot prevent death, and at the death of Josepha it is decided that Charlotte will be married in Naples, and Antoine will be set towards France. So at very young ages the girls are dispatched, with much instruction in their mother’s expectations and with the secrets of the embroidered book. Their progress in their adoptive home is shaped by their secrets, their enthusiasm for their use, and the efforts of those around them to aid and abet, or actively seek their downfall.

I found this book to be a complex read, with a dizzying combination of magic, politics and the young women’s emotions to deal with in the face of opposition. I admire the amount of research that contributed to it with vivid descriptions of the settings, the court dress, and even the furniture that filled their world, as well as an impressive overview of the complex political forces that changed and challenged, such as bad harvests, the American wars and even earthquakes. At no point was the research allowed to interfere with the strong essentially dual narratives as Europe was challenged and changed throughout the second half of the eighteenth century. The element of magic was brilliantly handled as it was a controlled power, limited by the process, the necessary secrecy  and the jealousies and disputes between its practitioners. This is an immense book, an enthralling story on so many levels, and I thoroughly recommend it as an amazing read.