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The Slave by Pauline Montagna
From the moment I first meet Aurelia Rubbini, I am entranced by this girl-woman, all the way from her tawny hair to her mild demeanour. Set in 14th century Italy, The Slave portrays Aurelia’s life, from the momentous meeting with Batu, a slave from foreign lands that her father has brought home, to her arranged marriage and its subsequent consequences.
The day Batu enters Aurelia’s life, she is awaiting her father’s return home after months on the road. Not that her father does more than throw his daughter a cursory glance, reminding her indirectly just how disappointing it is that she lives when her brother died. Aurelia, however, is more interested in the dark stranger that follows her father into the courtyard. Dirty and dishevelled, with his hands tied and with eyes that regard his new surroundings with apprehension, Batu touches Aurelia’s heart already then. When the newcomer is locked in alone in the cellar, Aurelia braves her fear of the dark to bring him food and a candle. Eyes meet, fingers graze and a tentative friendship is formed.
Before going any further, I must applaud Ms. Montagna for giving us a heroine that comes across as very true to her times. Aurelia is raised to be dutiful and obedient, and for most of the book she remains just that, no matter the rather forced circumstances she finds herself in. Only when she can no longer survive by being compliant does Aurelia rebel – quietly – and reinvent herself.
Where Aurelia is all soft graces and submissiveness, Batu, the slave, is not. Sloe-eyes and black-haired, he stems from somewhere in the east, from the grass-covered steppes that link Europe and Asia. Personally, I would have wanted to know more of Batu’s backstory; as it is he remains something of an enigma. Why, for example, does he never express a desire to go home, not even when Aurelia offers him his freedom?
After that first meeting in the cellar, a special bond evolves between Batu and Aurelia. Too special, Aurelia’s nurse thinks, warning her young charge from showing Batu too much affection. Aurelia is confused but does as she is told, restricting her interaction with Batu to a minimum. Ms. Montagna does a great job of describing the budding illicit romance between these two young people – no more than looks and smiles, the odd word, and yet so palpable.
Aurelia is the daughter of a successful merchant, Francesco Rubbini. There is no loving father-daughter relationship – in fact, there is no relationship at all. Signor Rubbini focuses all his attention on his business and politics, and to achieve his aims he uses his pretty daughter as a pawn, marrying her to Lorenzo, the heir of the Graziano family. Signor Rubbini gets political clout, the Graziano family gets a rich bride, and poor Aurelia gets a husband who doesn’t like women – at all.
With a reluctant groom and an inexperienced bride, the marriage is something of a disaster. Beyond brutally doing his duty on their wedding night, Lorenzo ignores Aurelia, who has no idea as to why Lorenzo treats her like he does.
Thanks to Ms. Montagna’s excellent descriptions – of food, of interiors, of clothing and customs – the reader is very quickly transported to the Italy of the 14th century. We participate in local feasts, in hunting excursions, in picnics. We are jolted along on uncomfortable carts, we struggle with laces and hose points, we smell linen drying in the sun, we taste roasted chestnuts and venison. At times, we are as breathless as Aurelia is after her numerous turns on the dance floor, and just as Aurelia we are utterly alone when we retire for the night.
The tensions in the Graziano household increase. Without revealing too much of the plot, let me just say that Ms. Montagna turns the screw tighter and tighter, making it impossible for me, as the reader, to put the book down. Inevitably things explode. A confrontation leads to terrible consequences for Aurelia – and, to some extent, for Batu, who loves her so much and can’t do anything to help her. Come dawn, the Aurelia-Lorenzo marriage is beyond salvaging, and Aurelia returns to her father’s house. Once back home, Aurelia retires into silence, avoiding Batu as much as he avoids her. She is shamed by what he saw, he is shamed by what he was forced to see.
So far into The Slave, it has been a delightful and entrancing read. I have hastened back home from work, woken early in the mornings to read. I have been intrigued by Lorenzo – and it would have been interesting to have more of his point of view – disliked Signor Rubbini, loved Aurelia and Batu. The last part of the novel, however, is not quite as gripping, despite an exciting plotline containing such elements as the Black Death and condottieri. I think this is mainly due to two things: the author is telling a lot of story over fewer chapters, and thereby the flowing pace that characterised the first part of the book is lost; Ms. Montagna suddenly starts referring to Aurelia as “the woman” and similar expressions, creating distance between the reader and Aurelia. Also, where before things had progressed in a timely fashion, in the last few chapters the reader is yanked back and forth in time a tad too abruptly, creating some unnecessary confusion.
This said, Ms Montagna brings The Slave to a satisfactory and inevitable end, thereby concluding an atmospheric and most entertaining read. Thanks to Ms Montagna, I now yearn for Italian landscapes bordered by distant poplars, for warm Italian sun and ancient houses of stone. Aurelia Rubbini will stay with me a long time, and I can’t but hope she led a long and happy life. She deserved to, she and Batu both.
The author has so kindly offered a free e-copy for one winner to claim. To stand a chance at a free copy of The Slave, simply comment below or at our Facebook thread!
About the author: Pauline Montagna was born into an Italian family in Melbourne, Australia. While her first career was in finance, after several years of honing her accounting skills Pauline decided to return to university and qualify as a teacher. Further to this, Pauline also completed a Diploma of Professional Writing and Editing. She has now retired from teaching to concentrate on her writing. For more information about Pauline, visit her website. The Slave is available through various distributors, such as Smashwords.
Anna Belfrage is the author of five published books, all part of The Graham Saga. Set in the 17th century, the books tell the story of Matthew Graham and his time-travelling wife, Alex Lind. Anna can be found on amazon, twitter, facebook and on her website. If you would like Anna to review your book, please see our submissions tab above.