While I had vaguely heard of Catherine de Medici and knew of her sinister characterization, I actually had no clue what she had done to deserve this description. I honestly had no idea that she was involved in the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre even though I had attempted to visit the church where it occurred while in Paris (it was closed at the time).
Gortner uses his novel to try to redeem the maligned queen of France and for the most part he succeeds in making her a likable character that I wanted to root for, even if she employs an astrologer and is a bit superstitious. The problem with historical fiction, however, is that the author is still restrained by facts. As a result, given some of the facts in Catherine's life, it is necessary to portray the character as either completely powerless or incompetent and still have the actions match with history. Maybe it's me, but I'd almost rather have a real evil and entertaining villain than a good person who is constantly thwarted or makes stupid mistakes, at least when it comes to fiction. As a result, I enjoyed the first half of the novel much more than the second half.
In the first half, Catherine is new to the French court and trying to find her way and place therein. Being from Florence, she is not familiar with all the factions, but soon discovers that the deGuise family have quite a bit of power as well as her husband's friendship. She remains in a position of weakness due to her husband's mistress, and the length of time it takes her to produce an heir, which can be blamed on her husband's lack of interest (at least in the novel). Eventually she would have quite a few children, and Mary, Queen of Scotland would be her daughter-in-law.
The second half focuses on after her husband's death when Catherine acts as regent for her sons (three of them would sit the throne). Like many surrounding European countries, this was a time of great religious uproar since Protestants and Catholics didn't seem to find it possible to live side by side. While Gortner portrays Catherine as tolerant, there was only so much she could do against the other houses that were in power and the sweeping religious and political forces. He also portrays her as someone that feels she has been betrayed and becomes harsher and less trusting as time goes on.
Overall, not a bad piece of historical fiction though Catherine's actions didn't always make sense to me given the character Gortner had established earlier in the novel. Her children are all rather unlikable and it's probably a good thing that they were the end of the House of Valois. Catherine herself seems to have a voice similar too many other historical fiction novel heroines, but I definitely enjoyed learning a bit about French history instead of focusing on more English history (her father in law by the way was Henry VIII's contemporary).
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