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The Second Duchess by Elizabeth Loupas
It is 1565 and Barbara of Austria becomes the duke of Ferrara's second duchess. His first wife died under mysterious circumstances and Barbara plans to find out what really happened. The first wife was Lucrezia de Medici, a very beautiful young girl, and Barbara feels uncertain, knowing that she is neither beautiful nor young. She is very clever, however, and with her strict upbringing at the Austrian court, she is a match for everybody in their court intrigues and political schemes. It's fun to read the conversations and try to find out the hidding meaning in people's words. Being married to the duke, who with his macho behavior won't alway treat her with due respect, is a challenge for Barbara, but it doesn't keep her from her sleuthing.

The author created a wonderful tale of mystery and suspense. The atmosphere isn't gothic per se, but the heroine couldn't feel more confined in an ancient castle than she is now in the Ferrara castillo where she is forever spied on, where she can only trust a few people and where she finds herself the target of a murderer. It cannot have been easy for the author to use real life people and facts in her tale and still make us feel like it's fiction at its best. Apart from the apparent murder, we get hidden paintings, secret chambers, a forbidden book, attempted and successful murders, poisons and potions.
The customs of the day are portrayed exceedingly well, like Barbara's dresses and toilette, the presence of her ladies in waiting, the treatment and cures by physicians and herbalists, the life of nuns at a convent, the torture of prisoners, and of course life in general at a ducal court.
Not only did Elizabeth Loupas use historical people, she also was very much inspired by Robert Browning's interpretation in "My last duchess", added in the back. In an afterword and an interview the author explains where she followed and where deviated from true facts.
I very much liked how each chapter ended with a view by the first duchess herself, who "lives" on as a ghost and comments on what is happening to Barbara and her investigation into her death.

This is a excellent novel which I'm sure every lover of gothic romance will appreciate. From me Elizabeth Loupas gets a 10 out of 10.

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