Friday, 7 February 2014

The Chosen Man by J.G. Harlond

This is a review for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2014 hosted by Historical Tapestry   (historicaltapestry.blogspot.be/)

I have got a new favourite historical fiction writer. From somewhere I ran into her name and found a teaser of this book. It sounded interesting and furthermore on her web-site (http://www.jgharlond.name/) she referred to two non-fiction books as background material, the Tulipomania by Mike Dash and The Entity by Eric Frattini. I actually read Tulipomania before I read her fictional book. As you have seen from another post on this site it is a fascinating story.

Harlond has used this true story as a set up for her fictional story about Ludovico de Portovenere, Marcos and Alina. It is a dashing story set between 1635-37 in Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and England, of ships, pirates, merchants, tulip lovers, man and women trying to survive in a time of war and uncertainty. Spain has lost its hold on the Netherlands and are - together with the Vatican - trying to force it into bankruptcy by manipulating the tulip market. Their chosen man to perform this task is the merchant Ludovico (Ludo). But how can you do this through tulips? Well, that is why this story is so fascinating. For a couple of years the tulips became such a popular flower in the
Netherlands - not only for connoisseurs but for everyone -  that it was the most exquisite and expensive commodity. It was traded in auctions, but also for the less valuable bulbs around Amsterdam and Haarlem, in pubs. Bulbs changed hands, papers changed hands because in the beginning it was just sold by paper without exchanging money. The money was paid first when the tulip was flowering. A somewhat risky business one would think. However, people made a lot of money in a very short time. Just as an example; a normal family lived on 300 gulden a year. The top price for an exclusive variety was sold for over 6.000 gulden at a certain point!

The story starts when Ludo is saving a young girl, Alina, being present in the harbour when it is attached by Berber pirates. Ludo has to get away from them as well and brings the girl with him. Ludo does not know what to do with her but when they arrive in England (he is on his way to the Netherlands) he managed to marry her to the last son of a Baron. Alina goes with the father and the son to their estate which in principal is run by the mother, rather evil and an overseer, even more evil. The father dies shortly after their return and Alina has to fight for her life, her loved ones and for the estate and the people living there.

Ludo and Marcos continue to the Netherlands which Ludo is already familiar with in his capacity of a merchant of silk, spices and other goods from the east. He is the perfect man for the job. With the help of a widow with a little bit of money, a clerk and his assistant Marcos he goes about his tasks. However, as the plot and market for tulips tighten he realises that the price he asked for this mission - a ship of his own - might be to high. The ship is no use to him if he is dead. A representative of a secret force in the Vatican and the representative of the Spanish king have him followed and are watching his every move.

Once the tulip market has crashed Ludo and Marcos have to flee from Amsterdam. Ludo decides that this is a perfect time to pay a visit to Alina to get away from the action for a time. Finally their love for each other comes out in the open but the book is not as clear cut as that. Not to reveal anything at forehand but the story evolves in not always foreseeable turns. This is also what makes this book a refreshing difference from a lot of other books.

This is Harlonds first book and it is very well written. Her second book The Empress Emerald is just out and takes place during 1900-1944 in an international setting. The new book might contain descendants from the first book. Looking forward to read this as well.

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