Friday, August 16, 2019

Review: Silent Water by P.K. Adams

Set in the depths of winter, during the Polish Golden Age at the time of the Jagiellonian dynasty, Silent Water is a deeply satisfying and engrossing historical mystery.

Often stellar plots are those that are simple, but richly executed, with penetrating human insights and unforgettable sets. Silent Water falls in this category. The narration is in first person with a tone that often borders on the melancholic, hinting to the tragedies that will soon be revealed.

Newly arrived in Poland, Contessa Caterina Sanseverino is part of Queen Bona Sforza's entourage.  Bringing with her the fashions and social mores of her native Italy, Queen Bona has married King Zygmont I, ruler of Poland and Lithuania.

Wawel Royal Palace, Kraków

Through Caterina's eyes and voice, we are transported to 16th century Kraków in the Wawel Royal Castle.  As Lady of the Queen's Chamber, to her falls the overwhelming responsibility of safeguarding the honour and righteousness of the other ladies of the court - ladies of both Italian and Polish origin. Not an easy task when Lucrezia Alifio is an inveterate flirt, Magdalena Górka is no better, and who knows what the flamed-head Helena Lipińska is up to.

Through Caterina, we learn of the fascinating political climate of the period, and meet wonderfully described characters including the womanising diplomat, Jan Dantyszek. The intrigues at court make for great entertainment and the author has deftly incorporated her knowledge of the culture into the narrative.  One highlight for me was the grand sleigh rides or sanna, on the day before New Year's Eve.

Sanna by Wasilewski Czesław

But over the course of feasting and the traditional celebrations that unravel during Christmas, New Year and the Epiphany, one by one, a series of grizzly murders will rock the royal palace.  Suspicions fly, political conspiracies are on the rise, gossip is ever rampant, a suspect is arrested, and more and more, Caterina is convinced that the imprisoned suspect is innocent. She has her own ideas.

A natural sleuth, Caterina finds herself the primary detective in this series of murders that soon reaches its chilling climax with a suspenseful, Gothic sequence.  For many readers who may guess the 'who' along the way, the conclusion offers satisfaction around the 'how' and the 'why', while posing new and haunting moral questions. 

The female gaze dominates this novel. It is a gaze imbued with the morality and social concerns of the period. Caterina is an observant woman who misses nothing of her charges' flirtations and social games. At least, she believes she has missed nothing. And that is her tragedy.

The author vividly paints the Kraków courtiers together with their costumes and clubs; there is mention of Italian artists invited by the Queen,  Polish writers and academics, including the now famous physicist, Nicolaus Copernicus. It was fascinating to learn just how much influence Italian art and architecture had on Poland at the time of Bona Sforza.

Bona Sforza

The book's portrait of a determined queen was faithful to history. I enjoyed learning about her proposed agricultural reforms and was astounded by her willpower in taking on the remnant Teutonic Order.

The Jagiellonian dynasty is not as well known as the English Tudors or the French Bourbons. Its first ruler, Władysław II Jagiełło - Duke of Lithuania and King of Poland by marriage - defeated the German Teutonic Knights in the 1410 Battle of Grunwald. It is a pity that there are not many authors with the courage to create stories in this unexplored landscape. We are thankful to P.K. Adams.

Battle of Grunwald by Jan Matejko  (1878)

What is worth noting is that Poland is not just underrepresented in historical fiction; its recent economic growth (it is now the 7th largest economy in the EU) has gone unreported despite it being touted by the World Bank as a new "Golden Age".  Personally upon reading Silent Water, I was eager to visit Poland if only to step back in time to that first Golden Age.

I will be looking forward to that, and to the other two books in this series.

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