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The Stars Compel
Michaela Roessner
Tor Books, 430 pages

The Stars Compel
Michaela Roessner
Michaela Roessner's other novels include Walkabout Woman, an anthropological fantasy set in Australia; Vanishing Point, a SF post-apocalyptic millennial novel set primarily in San Jose, California; and The Stars Dispose, the first book of a Renaissance fantasy trilogy about the life of Catherine de Medici, food, and art. She is currently working on the third book in the trilogy.

Michaela Roessner Website
ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Kristen Chew

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Michaela Roessner's first Renaissance fantasy, The Stars Dispose, was a lovely treat of a book. Set in Florence in the late 1520s, Roessner introduced us to Tommaso, a young apprentice cook whose life, as the lives of those in his family before him, becomes entwined with that of the ruling Medici family. Well written, replete with engaging characters and an intriguing plot, The Stars Dispose contained a wealth of fascinating historical detail without ever crossing the line to overwhelming or boring.

Both The Stars Dispose and its sequel, The Stars Compel, are set in the well-mined battlefield that was 16th-century Italy. Alas for the Medici, they have fallen on harder times since their heyday under Cosimo and his grandson, Lorenzo the Magnificent. The sole legitimate heir is a girl, Caterina, and great powers both in this world and in others are warring over possible futures for the little Medici. Her great uncle, Pope Clement, wants Florence for his illegitimate son Alessandro to rule. While others, fearing the brutal creature that Alessandro has become, manoeuvre their queen on a dangerous chessboard for the greater good of Florence. Meanwhile, mysterious figures from other worlds walk unseen through the city streets, subtly or brashly influencing the fate of this world for their own ends.

The Stars Compel picks up very soon after the conclusion of The Stars Dispose. Wanting to keep a closer eye on his great niece as he arranges to have her married off to the second son of the French king, Pope Clement moves the Duchessina Caterina to Rome. Tommaso, rapidly growing up, joins her as her chef and, as it develops, her eyes and ears outside of the palace. His love affair with Michelangelo, his continuing development as a master cook and reluctant spy, and the slow, inevitable blossoming of his talents as an heir to the Old Religion, move the plot along at a steady pace that never seems too fast or (worse) too slow.

As in the first book, it is obvious that Roessner loves the world that she is writing about. Both Florence and Rome have their own distinct feels; her Florence is vibrant and beautiful, while her Rome is more formal and distant with a nature all of its own. She has taken historical footnotes, such as the benandanti of Carlo Ginzburg's The Night Battles, and adapted them seamlessly into her story. The magic of the story is part Renaissance and part her own original creation: the formal, learned magic of the Ruggiero family bumps elbows with the magic of the Old Religion as practiced by Tommaso's mother's family. And, of course, there is the food. Ah... the food.

There is no doubt that this is a book well worth reading. My palms perspired when they were supposed to, my heart raced when directed, was broken in places and, in turn, mended. In a historical, even a historical fantasy, there are places where the plot must go, no matter how much the author or the reader wishes that they wouldn't. Catherine de Medici is a dark and complex historical figure, and I am in turn fascinated and terrified to know how Roessner's lovely girl will turn into the woman that was queen. I wait, eagerly, for the next book.

Warning: after reading The Stars Dispose, you are likely to be very hungry. Italian restaurants will benefit from this book as readers, desperate for traditional Tuscan and Roman cooking, will wander in helplessly from the cold and seek finally to taste the recipes with which Roessner has tantalized them. Munching a brioche will also give you something tasty to do while waiting for the next book in the series.

Copyright © 2000 by Kristen Chew

During the day, Kristen Chew is an editor with University of Toronto Press. The rest of the time, she tries to learn Japanese and wonders hopelessly why she doesn't have anywhere near as much time as she used to.


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