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HFC Editorial Review of "Ernestine" by Kate Reynolds

Updated: Jan 14

A shameful past. A vow to her dead husband. A sinister plot to destroy all she's come to love. Spain, 1526. Sister Ernestine is desperate for redemption. Racked with guilt over having tragically caused her spouse's execution, the newly minted nun arrives at St. Francis Abbey to fulfill a promise to deliver secret documents to the brother of her dead husband. But after discovering she has to wait several months for him to return, she fears being stuck in the middle of a region terrorized by the Inquisition. Pulled into intrigues of the devout community and its residents, Sister Ernestine discovers a French spy has tracked her down, intent on stealing the plans that would alter the European balance of power. And as her old enemy closes in, she must protect the world-changing information from falling into the wrong hands... and survive the rising threat within the abbey's sacred walls. With the future of Europe at stake, can the grieving woman complete her honor-bound mission before she loses her life? Ernestineis an intriguing stand-alone historical fiction novel. If you like well-drawn characters, richly researched settings, then you'll adore Ernestine's story of emotional healing, redemption, and forgiveness.

An invisible ember smoldered in each soul, a single defining characteristic that blazed within. The fire game, he called it. Find the fire and learn what sparks it, but take care to blow gently because tender hearts will bruise. She hadn’t believed him at first, but she’d been as raw as an onion then.”

Spain of 1526 was a world fraught with danger, and the shadows of the Inquisitors lurked around corners, as well as a world of desperation, of starvation, and of survival. This is the story of one young woman’s struggle from the squalor of hunger and gambling to finding love in the midst of political intrigue, espionage, and the struggle for power between two imposing Kings – King Carlos of Hispana and King Francois of France, both with their eyes on Rome.

Ernestine begins her life surrounded by gamblers, her father teaching her the art of deception, not from mere criminality but from the need to earn money for food.

“A man who owns a pig can hide his follies behind his assets.” (Love this line!)

Her skill at numbers and dice excel as she grows from child to woman, and the games she and her father play lead her to her one and only love, Sebastian, another skilled gamer. But what she doesn’t know is the secret Sebastian and his brother, Luis, share – they are spies for the King and the keepers of a document which could change history.

Ernestine and Sebastian’s love rises like Icarus to the sun, but soon, their luck runs out as Sebastian is caught by some of those he “played”. Ernestine is pitted against her own heart, and her innate need to survive brings her face-to-face with a decision which costs her the love of her life, and a decision which sends her on a holy quest for forgiveness.

At the opening of the novel, Ernestine has taken her vows as a nun, as a Clarisa, and she has travelled to Granada to seek forgiveness from Sebastian’s brother, Luis, and to return the valuable document to him, the document which might have saved Sebastian’s life.

Her plan is simple. Return the document and flee Spain, as everyone lives in fear of the fires of the Inquisition. Now a nun, she takes refuge at St. Francis Abbey, the Alhambra, the former residence of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, and formerly the palace of the Moors before driven away by the King and Queen. The palace is now a convent, cared for by Mother Faviola who has a particular knack for growing olives and for indulging in a game of dice every Sunday with the local priest.

“The abbess knew that some elusive quality in the olive touched deeply the human heart.”

The priest despises every stone of the Alhambra due to his own haunted past, and is desperate to find a way to destroy the building. Ernestine finds herself becoming immersed in the stories of the land, the Andalucian Way, and the sisters of the nunnery draw her into relationships she has never known. All she ever wanted to do was find forgiveness and run away, especially when she is confronted by a “ghost” from the past – a “frog-eyed sack of pig’s offal” named Gauchier Montague, who is determined to take those special documents from her, no matter the cost.

Her friendship with a young novitiate and a blind nun take her into the depths of her own heart, into secrets she wished to keep hidden, and ultimately helping her see the path towards coming home. A real home.

Her honor-bound mission, the one she vowed in her heart to undertake, a vow to her husband, Sebastian, fades as threats and intrigues creep from the outside world into the convent. Once she only thought of her own survival, but now... is this the way towards true forgiveness from God? Sacrifice?

This novel is truly one of emotional healing and redemption, of crawling from the depths of despair to spiritual awakening, and by sacrificing your own desires for the good of others. Books like this one are rare, and the quality of the writing and history embedded into the novel reflects writers like Zafon and Márquez (The Shadow of the Wind and One Hundred Years of Solitude); especially in the moments of pause when you read a line or a passage which binds you to the story and resonates to our modern day, a thread through time, such as when Ernestine speaks of her “job” as a clapper – hired to clap and cheer for a playwright’s play to persuade others in the crowd to join in – and how mobs are moved by the slightest provocation, “accepting another’s truth as their own” without forming their own opinion, how “convictions can be more dangerous than lies”, and how the Don Diego’s (the priest who uses religion to hide his vices) of the world flourish.

My only slight critique is the ending (no spoilers) which came much too fast and too much of a tied-up closure. For some of the characters in the book, I thought the Inquisition fires burned quite close, and would have liked to have known some of their outcomes.

But all in all, this was Ernestine’s story, and the satisfaction resting in my heart after turning the last page, after reading the last line, was breathtaking. Kate Reynolds is an exceptional storyteller and Ernestine is a brilliant book of Spanish history.

“Evil does exist. And it sometimes wins, but it doesn’t matter. You fight anyway.”

Five stars from The Historical Fiction Company and the “Highly Recommended” Award


Kate loves adventure, and to that end has traveled extensively. In her life she has been a computer programmer, a volunteer teacher of ESL, a waitress, and a stewardess on a two-masted schooner. Oh, and a writer.

She currently lives in Tucson with her husband and two cats, but the whole family plans a move to South Carolina in the near future.

Book Titles: Ernestine, Insiders' Guide to Phoenix, Insiders' Guide to Tucson.

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