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  • Lively, original, richly detailed

    I love Nupur Tustin's love of Prussia, a place near and dear to my heart though my ancestors who came from there are separated by many generations from their home town on the Baltic Sea. Prussia, or Pomerania, or Poland: talk about an indentity crisis! It's amazing to realize that not even 200 years ago, Germany, Austria, and Poland were not the nations they are now. They were empires, and Napoleon wreaked havoc on their borders, as did the world wars. We see Regency Romances all the time, but stories set in Prussia seem to lack the staying power that Jane Austen gave England of the early 1800s. Tustin's love of Prussia comes through in her prose without being heavy handed. We see Her Majesty, Empress Maria Theresa, seated by a mural that still exists today and can be seen in person, or on Tustin's blog: "The lush bounty of leaves, melons, and pomegranates painted on the walls by Johann Wenzel Bergl's hands formed a startling contrast to the bleakness without." This is the beauty of historical fiction. If you can't summon airfare to Vienna, you can see images of the imperial summer palace, Schönbrunn, at the author's blog. The Esterházy Palace on Wallnerstrasse is another place I'd gladly visit soon, but for now, I enjoy reading someone else's impressions of these grand places. There is much talk of unrest in Poland, and enemies of Her Majesty fomenting trouble, making a trip to Prussia imminent for the Empress and some of her servant girls as well, who get into a lively subplot of their own. Empress Maria has three daughters to choose from to escort her on her journey, and she chooses the least favored one, Amalia, who "had nothing to recommend her." Not her sister Mimi's beauty, not her younger sister Antoine's charms. Amalia was "hardheaded and uncompromising." As in an Austen novel, there is also talk of marriage, but romance is not the main focus. Music recurs like a motif in the narrative as Kappellmeister Haydn is drawn into a mystery. At this point, I have to confess, I find it distracting to have a real-life composer cast in the role of a Sherlock Holmes in the days of the Prussian Empire. If it didn't really happen, why not create a character similar to Haydn instead? It's a minor detail however, one that apparently doesn't bother devout fans of historical fiction. Likewise, I found myself skimming pages about the ostentatious seven-carat gemstone that goes missing, and the murder, and the unraveling of clues to determine whodunnit. But I love the part that really did happen, such as the royal visitors being greeted at the palace gates by "a small, wizened creature in a faded blue military uniform," who conveys the visitors to Sanssuci himself--and he is none other than the King Frederick of Prussia. The Point of View shifts frequently from Empress Maria to Haydn to other minor characters, which to me is a little jarring. I found the narrative a bit off-putting because of it. But I love the Author's Notes at the end, with the unfortunate reminder, "Poland, unfortunately, was never saved. On August 5, 1772--less than four years after the events of this story--Empress Maria Theresa reluctantly agreed to the first partition of Poland." Polish territories were swallowed by Russia, Prussia, and Austria. I also love her reminder of "how closely the Polish constitution with its system of checks resembled the system of governance in the United States of America," and that Poles shared an antipathy toward government in all its forms. "The Poles quite rightly believed that subjecting a minority of people to the whims of the majority went against the principle of individual liberty," Tustin writes. In all, this is a rich novel with lively dialogue and political intrigue, along with a murder mystery for the composer Haydn to solve. The whodunnit is not my favorite genre to begin with, so pay no attention to me if I say that was not the best part of the novel. The history alone is worth the price of admission!

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