Within the glittering Hapsburg court in Prague lurks a darkness of which no one dares speak…
In 1606, the city of Prague shines as a golden mecca of art and culture carefully cultivated by Emperor Rudolf II. But the emperor hides an ugly secret: his bastard son, Don Julius, is afflicted with a madness that pushes the young prince to unspeakable depravity. Desperate to stem his son’s growing number of scandals, the emperor exiles Don Julius to a remote corner of Bohemia where the young man is placed in the care of a bloodletter named Pichler. The bloodletter’s task: cure Don Julius of his madness by purging the vicious humors coursing through his veins.
When Pichler brings his daughter Marketa to assist him, she becomes the object of Don Julius’s frenzied –and dangerous– obsession. To him, she is the embodiment of the women pictured in the Coded Book of Wonder, a priceless manuscript from the imperial library that was the mad prince’s only link to sanity. As the prince descends further into the darkness of his mind, his acts become ever more desperate, as Marketa, both frightened and fascinated, can’t stay away.
“Men who thirst for freedom will find it, even if they drink at a poisoned well.”
Honestly, this book would have been better if it had been a stand alone story and was not based off of real events and people. From a historical point of view, this book has many problems. While the author did some decent research into events, people, and local legend, the way in which she incorporated these things was heavy handed. It feels like she threw in every famous name she could for random chapters in a weak attempt to make it fit within the time period. To me, I feel historical fiction is successful if it can immerse the reader into the time period, even if facts or other details are fudged a bit. The Bloodletter’s Daughter failed this on a massive scale.
The real Marketa never assisted in Don Julius’ bloodletting, she was his bed mate plain and simple. It is also not very likely that Marketa ever came into contact with half the characters that she does. There is nothing in history that points to the Prince’s obsession with “the Coded Book of Wonder,” or the Voynich Manuscript. The Voynich script is famous because of the strange illustrations and language that has yet to be deciphered. Even with all the theories as to the symbolisms of these images, when you look at that images Don Julius rants about with the beautiful bath maids and how one looks like Marketa, it becomes very apparent that the author was overly romanticizing the script.
The beautiful description of the Bohemian countryside could never make up for the poor handling of characters. All the main characters were completely one dimensional: they were either all good or all bad. Marketa was far too modern, and I couldn’t sympathize with her at all. It is obvious from the author’s commentary that she did not like how Marketa has been remembered throughout history – with particular disdain for the nickname ‘musle’. She warped her into being the most perfect Mary Sue, and I don’t toss around that term lightly. Marketa is virtuous, innocent, naive, is desired by seemingly everyone, clever, and has great skill in medicine – something that is forbidden of women in that time period. This contrasts drastically with her role as both a bath maid and Don Julius’ mistress. She isn’t even depicted as the latter in the book. It’s obvious from chapter one that the author liked the character of Marketa so much that the ending can be pretty easily guessed.
Other than my issues with historical accuracy, my other main issue with the book would be simply that the story lacked any kind of focus. There are so many characters that are brought in of semi-importance to the main story whatsoever. The chapters about the virtuous Prince Matthias and his quest toward the throne in the backdrop, while it served to try to add a historical timeline was also very distracting and not really needed. There were many random chapters that took place in Prague that honestly had NOTHING to do with the story, but only served to keep reiterating a particular character’s religion or to try and convince the reader of the authenticity of this retelling.
The book just drags on and on, and could have easily been a much shorter book. While it had it’s moments where it was exciting and my interested was piqued, there were so many times that I just didn’t care, and seriously considered stopping the book altogether. When I had finally finished, it went alright until I read the epilogue containing the fates of the main characters. Honestly, the story would have been infinitely better WITHOUT that awful chapter.
Lastly, while the book was teeming with lechery and the brutal mistreatment of women, I was surprised when I was met with a brief moment of reverse sexism in this story. To clarify, I had serious issues with the rape of a male character by a main female character and used as a plot device. Never have I EVER seen a depiction of rape so horrendously mishandled and I was deeply offended.
When women are abused in the story, the whole town raises their torches and pitchforks. When it’s a man, well it’s all his fault anyway. This kind of one sided sexism is absolutely disgusting and propagates a negative social stigma for men who do find themselves in that awful situation. It served no purpose to the main story other than to provide some minor drama and pave the way for the author’s half baked idea for a happy alternative family ending. This alone destroyed my opinion of the author and the book and I’m quite frankly disappointed.
Strengths: Genuinely exciting around the end and is a fun read at points
Weaknesses: Overly long with far too much fluff, wrought with historical inaccuracies, extremely poor handling of rape
Warnings: Sex, rape, violence