Venice, 1576. Five years after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire at the Battle of Lepanto, a ship steals unnoticed into Venice bearing a deadly cargo. A man, more dead than alive, disembarks and staggers into Piazza San Marco. He brings a gift to Venice from Constantinople. Within days the city is infected with bubonic plague—and the Turkish Sultan has his revenge.
But the ship also holds a secret stowaway—Feyra, a young and beautiful harem doctor fleeing a future as the Sultan’s concubine. Only her wits and medical knowledge keep her alive as the plague ravages Venice.
In despair, the Doge commissions the architect Andrea Palladio to build the greatest church of his career—an offering to God so magnificent that Venice will be saved. But Palladio’s life is in danger too, and it will require all the skills of Annibale Cason, the city’s finest plague doctor, to keep him alive. What Annibale had not counted on was meeting Feyra, who is now under Palladio’s protection—an impossible woman whose medical skills and determination are matched only by his own.
Marina Fiorato can bring medieval Italy to life like no one else! Though I have all of her novels sitting on my shelves, I've only had the chance to read one other, The Daughter of Siena, and I was so impressed with how she was able to transport me so completely to the time period. She's done it again in The Venetian Bargain. There's one particular scene that stands out in my memory, where Feyra finds herself lost upon her arrival in Venice, frantically running through a twilit maze of strange streets, amidst the fog, the smoke of fires, the shadows thrown by cressets and lamps, encountering strange people in masks both beautiful and terrifying, the sounds echoing off the water . . . I was there, and I was just as awe-struck and frightened as Feyra. The whole novel is like that. I won't call it a treat for the senses, as this is a very dark time in Venetian history with pestilence and death everywhere, but it is thoroughly transporting.
And peopled with terrific characters too. The keeper of life-changing secrets, forced from the only home she's ever known, and a world where she was respected and renowned for her medical skills, Feyra is tossed upon the shores of Fate, only to end up in a city surrounded by enemies who would kill her for the color of her shoes, and surrounded by the very death she inadvertently helped bring upon the city of Venice. She alone is in a unique position to ease their suffering, but women are not allowed to practice medicine in Venice as they are in Constantinople. Feyra must focus instead on surviving, hiding from those who would see her dead, and starting her life over in the world of the infidel. She is fortunate in that her one friend in the city has friends in high places, and she finds herself in the household of the master architect Andrea Palladio, who has been tasked with rebuilding a temple that will appease God and save Venice from the pestilence. An unlikely friendship forms, and Feyra influences Palladio's design with her descriptions of Eastern churches. But Feyra is still not safe, and as the plague continues to rage unabated in Venice, she is forced to take refuge in the one place no one is likely to come looking for her: the plague island.
Annibale Cason is a brilliant young doctor fresh out of university at Padua. Disgusted with the Venetian doctors' ineffectual medicines and schemes to make money off of the ill and dying, he creates his own hospital far from the center of the city, where he can test his own theories in an effort to stem the spread of contagion. He is not best pleased to have an assistant forced on him by the Doge's powerful ally, Andrea Palladio, but he'll not risk the destruction of his hospital, so he allows Feyra to join him. Disconcerted by her beauty and her foreign beliefs, he soon has to concede that she is well educated in medicine, and that some of her ideas may actually be better than his own. As the pair grow close, bonding over their love of medicine and their patients, they fall in love. But just when they both think they may have found where their hearts and their futures lie, Feyra's secret past comes after her with a vengeance, placing the man she loves and everything they have worked so hard for in danger . . .
Oh, this was such a good book and such a great love story! In fact, my only complaint is that with such a wonderful love story, so fraught with obstacles to happily ever after, I really was expecting much more of a romantic payoff at the end, and I felt a little gypped that I didn't quite get it. But all's well that end's well, and y'all know me--I'm a hopeless romantic. Other readers probably won't find a thing wrong with the ending. There's plenty of historical context here too, and historical figures mingle with the fictional. I had not previously been aware of the depth of animosity between the Ottoman Empire and Venice, and I loved getting a window into this era of history, hatred, and warfare. I was also fascinated by the portrait of medieval medicine, and how the encroachment of enlightenment and science were battling with long-held practices based on superstition and religion. All around, I found The Venetian Bargain to be another lush, engrossing, transporting, and utterly unputdownable story from Marina Fiorato, and one that any lover of historical fiction should add to their list!
My Rating: 4.5 Stars out of 5
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