Changeling by Philippa Gregory

Italy, 1453. Seventeen-year-old Luca Vero is brilliant, gorgeous—and accused of heresy. Cast out of his religious order for using the new science to question old superstitious beliefs, Luca is recruited into a secret sect: The Order of the Dragon, commissioned by Pope Nicholas V to investigate evil and danger in its many forms, and strange occurrences across Europe, in this year—the end of days.     

Isolde is a seventeen-year-old girl shut up in a nunnery so she can’t inherit any of her father’s estate. As the nuns walk in their sleep and see strange visions, Isolde is accused of witchcraft—and Luca is sent to investigate her, but finds himself plotting her escape.    

Despite their vows, despite themselves, love grows between Luca and Isolde as they travel across Europe with their faithful companions, Freize and Ishraq. The four young people encounter werewolves, alchemists, witches, and death-dancers as they head toward a real-life historical figure who holds the boundaries of Christendom and the secrets of the Order of the Dragon.

This is the first volume in Philippa Gregory’s new Young Adult series, Order of Darkness. Philippa is of course a prolific historical fiction author who has, over the last decade, been writing “fictional biographies” (as she calls them) of some very famous and not-so famous women of the Tudor Era, and lately, the War of the Roses. She has always included a little exploration of magic, alchemy and witchcraft in her novels.  But without the constraints of writing about historical figures, a whole new world to explore and her love of magic and mystery unfettered, it’s on for young and old(er)

This has some interesting elements, not quite a fantasy, but some magic mingled with religion, mystery and superstition in an age of Catholic fear after the fall of Constantinople. Our male trio consists of the enigmatic young hero, Luca, and his companions, his devoted friend/servant Frieze who just about steals the whole show and the stolid Brother Peter. Isolde and Ishraq are good, strong female characters, with a touching relationship between the two life-long companions. I would have liked to see them developed more, the story is mostly told from Luca’s point of view and the females still have a slight air of mystery about them, and I am hoping we’ll see them explored more in-depth in the next volume.

While the main story centres around Isolde and Luca, the supporting characters certainly don’t fade into the scenery. Ishraq provides an interesting look at females outside the constraints of the Catholic culture, and Frieze is in fact the most fascinating and engaging character of the whole group. I am expecting great things for him in the next few books.

This is a well-paced novel, with good imagery and world-building, a little genre-bending, and an excellent dynamic between the cast of characters. A welcome breath of fresh air in a stale market.

Rating: ★★★★☆

With thanks to Simon and Schuster for the review copy.

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