When an envoy from the New World comes to Venice, the elite courtesan Belladonna fears the secret of her origins may be revealed. The Spanish are after him, for he carries the map to a great treasure. When the envoy disappears, his enemies shift their pursuit to Belladonna, their only key to his whereabouts.
To avoid capture by the Spanish, Belladonna must abandon her luxurious palazzo, and take refuge in the Ghetto with her friend, Diana, the rabbi’s daughter. Hiding in plain sight behind the Ghetto walls, she must find the envoy and confront her past. Faced with terrible choices and an uncertain future, Belladonna must decide whether to sacrifice all she has achieved for a love she has always desired.
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Nina Wachsman graduated from Parsons School of Design where she studied illustration with Maurice Sendak. After a career as a former ad agency creative director, she now runs a digital marketing company. Her most recent mystery story appears in the anthology, "Justice for All, Murder NY Style 5", and she has two stories which will appear in upcoming horror anthologies and mystery magazines. The Gallery of Beauties, her debut novel of historical suspense, has just been published by Level Best Books. Website https://venicebeauties.com/
He squinted a bit, and gulped a mouthful of wine, as he remembered the spectacular death of the Venetian ambassador at the Hampton Court Masque. It had spurred his King to send him to Venice, at the court’s expense, in pursuit of the treasure and the envoy. With the dying man’s last words, it had also directed him to “Belladonna”.
To take the name Belladonna in Italy could almost be seen as vain, for its direct translation is ‘beautiful woman’. However, to the rest of the world, it is a bold move, for it is wildly known that belladonna, or deadly nightshade, is not a plant to mess with, and all parts of it are poisonous. When Raquel took the name, she hid herself from the Inquisition she had escaped, and took on her new identity as a well-known courtesan.
A trove of treasure is rumoured to be hidden, the whereabouts known only by one – the Jamaican envoy, who has a map to the treasure. In a bid to entice the English to assist Jamaica against the inevitable Spanish invasion, the map was to be given to King James I. However, the Jamaican envoy has disappeared, and a staged and very public murder shows just how dangerous it would be for him if he is found. The only piece of information anyone has to go on is that the Jamaican envoy is close to Belladonna, so all eyes turn to her.
The Courtesan's Secret: A Venice Beauties Mystery by Nina Wachsman is a novel of political interests, love, friendships, and the danger of one individual being wanted by so many people from multiple nations.
“And so, I am in danger. They assume, as an accomplished courtesan, that I am in possession of his secrets.”
Jamaica needed help in its defence against the Spanish invasion, but England was wary about taking arms in Jamaica’s aid. It would not be an easy win, and there was the possibility of great losses. However, with word going around about a large sum of treasure, hidden within Jamaica, it suddenly became infinitely more appealing to offer help to the nation. With the Jamaican envoy nowhere to be found, all eyes turned to the person who has potential relations with the envoy, the person who may know who possesses the map leading to Jamaica’s hidden treasure. At every turn, there is someone after Belladonna, and she has no choice but to go into hiding. The English are after her for the map, and who knows what the Spanish would do if they found her. The best she can do is hide herself away where no-one would ever think to look for her, where she knows she will have support, and be able to conceal herself until there was a solid plan in place to keep her from harms way – the Ghetto.
The gates of the Ghetto had been constructed long ago to contain its citizens but also to protect them, and now they were relying on them to keep their secrets. Rumors were their enemy, and in the past had caused expulsion and death.
It is not difficult to fall in love with the characters in this book, especially Belladonna. She is a woman to be admired, who knows her place in society, and is not afraid to speak her mind. She is running a thriving business before she has to go into hiding, and even then, she takes everything life throws at her in her stride, keeping her head up high. I truly enjoyed following her story as she attempts to find out who is after her, and what she can do to keep herself safe while also protecting those she loves.
Belladonna may be the one of the most important characters of this novel, but she does share the limelight. There are multiple perspectives provided, including that of Diana, the Rabbi’s daughter and a close friend of Belladonna’s, and her brother Isaak, a pirate, dedicated to sailing the seas and rescuing imprisoned Jews from ships bound to send them into a life of slavery or towards their deaths. The inclusion of both characters fleshed out the story – Diana provides the viewpoint of someone stuck within the Ghetto, unable to escape the life she has been given, and forced to wear the yellow badge to reveal herself as a Jew wherever she went. Isaak, although he grew up alongside Diana, must remain hidden, for he is a pirate, and to show his face could be life threatening. He has escaped the confines of the Ghetto, but he is not an outsider, and very much devoted to his task. There were many characters in this novel I truly enjoyed spending time with, and both Diana and Isaak fell into that category.
“There is no choice, you know,” Isaak said, taking her hand and cradling it in his. Belladonna sighed. “Understanding the course that must be taken does not lessen the pain of taking it.”
There is a subtle hint of romance between Belladonna and Isaak throughout this novel. There are indications that something transpired between them in the past, but it has been put behind them as they moved on with their lives individually. When Isaak finds Belladonna to warn her of the danger she is in, a spark is lit between them, an ember that had been previously left to burn out sparked back to life. It is clear throughout the book that both Belladonna and Isaak feel deeply for each other, but neither are in a position to let their feelings be known. There is no romantic subplot within this book, although the threads are there to allow the reader to understand their feelings without the characters necessarily having to reveal them to each other.
This is certainly a book of action and adventure. Some additional characters whose lives we follow are Villiers and Antonio, a courtier of the English King, and a Spanish assassin. With Antonio hunting Villiers, who in turn is desperately trying to find Belladonna to retrieve the map to return it to the King, there are plenty of thrilling moments, and there is enough action shared across all the chapters to make this a fast-paced and enthralling read you do not want to put down.
Although there are a lot of perspectives in this novel, it is not disorientating to switch between characters every few chapters. Each character is so distinctive, and unique, it is incredibly easy to follow each individual without getting confused about who is who. The author has clearly put a lot of work into creating and fleshing out each character, as well as keeping to the historical fact, for a few of the characters who are based on real historical people. This is the second book in a series, although if you didn’t know that, it isn’t clear. You don’t need to read the first book in the series to enjoy this one, for an effort has been made to make this book stand-alone, and it certainly stands proudly by itself. This is the kind of book that makes you want to go back and read the previous books in the series, for you simply cannot get enough of the characters.
Full to the brim of action, threat, and edge-of-your-seat tension, The Courtesan's Secret: A Venice Beauties Mystery by Nina Wachsman is not to be missed. A work of art masterfully constructed on the page, this is a novel I enjoyed every second of reading, and one I highly recommend.
“The Courtesan's Secret” by Nina Wachsman receives five stars and the “Highly Recommended” award of excellence from The Historical Fiction Company
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