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The Serpent Garden
Judith Merkle-Riley
Penguin, 467 pages

The Sepent Garden
Judith Merkle Riley
Judith Merkle Riley is a professor of political science at Claremont McKenna College. She is also the author of A Vision of Light, In Pursuit of the Green Lion and The Oracle Glass.

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Margo MacDonald

What a great storyteller! Once again, as in her previous novel The Oracle Glass, Judith Merkle-Riley presents a cast of interesting, fully-drawn characters headed up by a strong female heroine in a fantasy story that is both compelling and complete. The plot follows the adventures of a young female painter (following the untimely death of her husband) and is set in the Renaissance, specifically at the time of Henry VIII's sister's marriage to the king of France. Merkle-Riley gives us interesting insights into historical facts and figures (particularly Wolsey) and cunningly blends them with witty fictional characters who seem very real. The author is skilled in her ability to refrain from over-romanticizing while at the same time keeping the story from reading like a history book.

Details about the styles and techniques of painting from this period are cleverly interwoven into dialogue and descriptions so you don't even notice you've learned anything until after you've put down the book. At the beginning of each section, there are descriptions of certain actual portraits of the period (by unknown artists) taken from various art history texts. These portraits are then tied into the story in that section of the book. My only real disappointment was that the publisher did not provide colour plates of these portraits which would have added so much to the book.

So, just where does the fantasy part come in? Why, the demons and angels, of course! Some alchemist-sorcerer-type guys let loose a demon at the very beginning of the book who becomes entangled in a number of delicious plots involving madmen and Knights Templar wannabes. Where you have demons running amok, you'd better hope you have someone pulling for the other side. That's where the angels fit in. Fortunately the angels have a great sense of humour and are more earthly than ethereal, though the demon is definitely more interesting (ain't that always the way!). Neither are really integral to the plot, however, and the story would have done just fine without them. But, they are fun and create a lot of havoc - and what more could you want from seraphim and spawn of hell.

Copyright © 1997 by Margo MacDonald

Margo has always been drawn toward fantasy and, at the age of 5, decided to fill her life with it by pursuing a career as a professional actress. Aside from theatre (and her husband), Margo's passion has been for books. Her interests are diverse and eclectic, but the bulk fall within the realm of speculative fiction. She tells us that her backlog has reached 200 books and she's ready to win the lottery and retire.

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