I was provided with a copy of this book by the publisher and the author, in exchange for an honest review.
Lavinia Maud craves the moment the last wisps of life leave her victim’s bodies—to behold the effects of her own poison creations. Believing confession erases the sin of murder, her morbid desires are in unity with faith, though she could never justify her skill to the magistrate she loves.
At the start of the 16th century in Tudor England, Lavinia’s marks grow from tavern drunks to nobility, but rising prestige brings increased risk. When the magistrate suspects her ruse, he pressures the priest into breaking her confessional seal, pitting Lavinia’s instincts as an assassin against the tenets of love and faith. She balances revenge with her struggle to develop a tasteless poison and avoid the wrath of her ruthless patron.
With her ideals in conflict, Lavinia must decide which will satisfy her heart: love, faith, or murder—but the betrayals are just beginning.
According to the press pack I got from the author, this book was inspired by an ancient female poisoner, Locusta, and the essence of her story was transported to Tudor England, with additions and diversions along the way.
Apricots and Wolfsbane was inspired by the life of Locusta, the notorious poison master from Gaul.
In AD 54, Empress Agrippina conspired with Locusta to murder her husband, Roman Emperor Claudius, with a batch of poisoned mushrooms in order to place her son, Nero, on the throne. While Locusta was subsequently imprisoned in AD 55, Nero sought to secure his throne by contracting Locusta to craft a poison to murder Claudius’s son, Britannicus. When the concoction failed initial tests, Nero flogged Locusta with his own hands. Her second attempt succeeded. Upon Britannicus’s death, Nero bestowed Locusta with pardons, lands, and lavish gifts. He also sent pupils to study with the poison master.
But all good things come to an end. In AD 68, the Roman Senate tired of Nero’s rogue practices and the Emperor took his own life with a dagger before facing punishment. The Senate’s attention then turned towards Locusta, and without protection from the Emperor, she was convicted with an execution sentence. Some accounts say she was raped to death by a giraffe and then torn apart by wild animals. While that tale tantalizes
the imagination, it is more likely she was led through the city in chains and executed by human hands.
The plot of Apricots and Wolfsbane is inspired by Locusta’s life, but is not a replication. The essence was lifted out of Ancient Rome and placed into two fictional shires of early 16th century England at the height of the Catholic church. Those familiar with Locusta will recognize bits of historical reference within the tale, but the novel is full of unpredictable twists in a unique examination of morality.
I decided to read and review this book on the back of a comparison to Poison Study, and the space that it could have to grow into an adult book. Apricots and Wolfsbane is an adult historical fiction novel, focused on a female assassin, and is certainly an interesting ride.
First things first, this book is beautiful. The cover art is gorgeous, the typesetting is lovely, and the chapter headers are in the most elegant font – it would look wonderful on any shelf, as it’s certainly clearly been crafted with love. That said, though, there were numerous typing errors which could and should have been picked up by the proofreader. I found several of them near the beginning, which put me on edge for the rest of the book, as I was then more aware of them. I know that no editor is infallible, but there were a lot of typos in this book, which was disappointing in such an otherwise beautiful copy.
Those are minor concerns, though. The bulk of the review should be about the content of the book!
So much of this book was really great. The prose was elegant, the history clearly meticulously researched, the characterisation considered and the variety of perspectives shown was thrilling. Apricots and Wolfsbane was a thrill of a read, and I read it in only two days, sprawled across the couch as I dreamed of being dressed in fine clothes and jewels with Lavinia and Aselin.
I also really appreciated the detail that the author included on Lavinia’s poison development – I knew throughout that the poisonous plants mentioned were real, but didn’t realise until the post-novel notes that Lavinia was attempting to develop ricin throughout the book.
An interesting point which is probably unique to me – although I’ve read plenty of books about assassins and poisoners, including Throne of Glass, the Night Angel trilogy, and the Chronicles of Ixia, I’ve never actually read one before that was straight historical fiction, and not also fantasy. So throughout this book, I was kind of expecting magic to jump in somewhere. This was, of course, ridiculous, because this was Tudor England, and faithful to the modes of the period, but I was still waiting for it. Not sure why.
I had only a few complaints about this book which stopped me from rating it a full five stars.
The first was a plot point from early in the book. If Lavinia was a young woman alone, and needed to marry, as far as society was concerned, how had she been maintaining the appearances she needed for the three years preceding the book? While we know that she was able to support herself with the income from her commissions, what lie was she spinning to society at large to explain how a yeoman woman was able to keep not only herself and her house, but also two orphans, with no discernable source of income? So much rich detail was included in the book that the omission of this particular detail really rankled.
Secondly, I never really connected with Lavinia. I couldn’t understand how she could reconcile her piousness with her abject need for murder. Although this was developed and nuanced in the book – ably demonstrated by the testing phases in the latter parts of the book – I just wasn’t able to get into her head and sympathise with her. Because I didn’t understand her religious convictions, and therefore didn’t support them, she then lost a lot of her humanity for me. So as an assassin that I didn’t connect with, I had no real support for her, and she failed as an anti-hero. I didn’t particularly want her to succeed, although I didn’t want her to fail either.
Perhaps it’s because I don’t have any real religious faith, but I totally failed to understand how Lavinia could reconcile her murders with her confessions, and definitely didn’t understand her feeling of cleansing after confession. Aselin’s cold-blooded lack of belief and self-contained interest was much more comprehensible.
I think, however, that the lack of connection with Lavinia was more me than the book, and might not have affected anyone else, so I didn’t knock a star off for that.
Finally, there was some strange muddling between tenses, but a finish that I really didn’t see coming, so I was left surprised and pleased at the end of the book.
I think that Lavinia’s apprentice Aselin will appear in a follow-up in the future, so I’ll be keeping an eye out for that. I think perhaps her colder nature might make her easier to warm to, because I’d be better able to understand her. But we’ll see!