This book hooked me from the start. It begins with a deranged boy, Don Julius, trying to solve a code hidden in a book. We learn that this is the bastard son of the king. When the king arrives to pay a visit to the boy’s mother, he scolds Don Julius for not being masculine enough. He slaps the boy, “encouraging” him to get drunk and sleep with lots of women. This action has a profound effect on the boy, who had been using the mystery of the code to calm his various ailments—both his thoughts and his physical ailments. It’s left to imagine all the horrible things he’ll do to women over the following years (and he does!).
The book transitions to the story of Marketa, a young woman who helps her family by working at their bathhouse. At this time in history, bathing was not the respected custom it is today. The family’s bathhouse provides full-service bathing—and I do mean full service. As she blossoms to womanhood, a man becomes enamored with Marketa. She is disgusted, but her mother forces her to do things like sit naked for him and help make his bath time extra pleasurable. Marketa, however, is a girl of science. Despite her gender, she wants nothing more than to learn her father’s trade of bloodletting. She is infatuated with the human body and how it works, and she refuses to sleep with anyone at the bathhouse, even if it means she’s losing out on extra money for her family.
The two storylines merge when the king sends his son to a facility located in Marketa’s town, located away from the king. The king has promised the deranged young man a position—if he can be healed. Marketa’s father is enlisted to help with the bloodletting that promises to help Don Julius. As well, the king has allowed the boy to start looking at the coded book once more, as this seems to have worked to quell his craziness years prior. Don Julius has noticed Marketa, however, and has demanded her presence at the bloodletting. He seems to think Marketa has emerged from inside his coded book. Obsessed is an understatement.
In addition, Marketa has secretly been asked to report on the patient’s progress to an agent of the king—in exchange for the most updated medical news from Prague. To add to the mix, Marketa and her father have been having visions of a lady in white—we learn little of this save that it’s some type of omen, and it’s important to note whether the woman is wearing white or black gloves (Marketa sees no gloves; her father sees black ones).
This book is well-written, with just enough mystery and darkness to captivate me. I recommend it to anyone interested in a historical book in which the storyline merges well with the history of the time to make it come alive. Though the storylines are somewhat disturbing, I recommend this book for anyone with a penchant for things dark.