Cons: slow and somewhat confusing beginning
King Alonzo II’s Spanish court works in close connection with the Inquisition of Padre Juan Murador, rooting out heresy wherever it lies. At an auto-da-fe, a condemned woman proclaims her innocence and pronounces a curse on Alonzo’s line, a curse his now 19 year old legitimate son bears the burden - and effects - of. The Infante Real, Don Rolon, is beset by doubts as to his worthiness to be the heir to the Spanish throne, as the curse worsens, turning him into a beast during the full moon. But he walks a fine line, as the king would prefer to see his bastard son, Gil del Rey, heir, and the inquisition is eager to find fault with those at court, with spies everywhere.
While the prologue, which sets the scene of the Spanish court and the curse, is easy to follow, I found the first chapter, which introduced Don Rolon a little confusing. We meet him travelling on his father’s orders to a remote castle. Given the number of titles and names used, I thought it was a large party, and only realized that the names and titles were for the same people when the text stated that only 5 people were travelling. The heir is called numerous things, and until I had them all straight (which didn’t take long once I was aware of the situation), it was a bit confusing. Similarly, I had assumed the men travelling with him were all friends, but that turned out to not be the case either.
It takes a while to get into the story as a lot of the early part of the book is cementing the personalities of Don Rolon and, to a lesser extent, Lugantes, the court jester. Other characters are fleshed out and given POV scenes later, when the company returns to court.
The characters are all fascinating, and diverse. Everyone’s terrified of the inquisition, though some less than others, assuming that their innocence and devotion protects them. The priests are all devout in their beliefs that they’re doing god’s work, even as they torture innocents. In fact, some of the most terrifying scenes in the book are listening to the priests justify their work, knowing they’re 100% oblivious to the irony of their accusations in comparison to their actions.
While I liked Don Rolon’s complexity in his dealings with everyone, my favourite character was the jester. Lugantes, though a little person and much mocked by the court as a whole, with the noted exception of Don Rolon, which earns him Lugantes’ devotion, is remarkably clever. He hides his cleverness with japes and jokes, and uses his lower status as a form of invisibility, to learn important news and visit people in private. He’s given a good amount of page time, and he’s instrumental in helping Don Rolon, though he also has his own interests (and love) to occupy, and worry, him.
Not given as much page time, but interesting all the same - if not as developed a character - is Don Rolon’s valet, Ciro Eje, a converso who’s not as devout in his Catholicism as would be wise considering his position.
Certain other characters changed over the course of the book, making me like them more. I’d put Genevieve, the French Queen and Don Rolon’s fiance in that category. Conversely, I liked Inez at first, but her unwise decisions - and to be fair, Don Rolon’s interest in her - put her in danger.
The king’s blindness towards what the priests were doing - and some of the liberties he allows them to take with their accusations and denouncements, is astonishing. And led to several plot twists, especially towards the end, that I did not see coming.
There’s a deep feeling of dread that settles on you as you read this book. As with actual torture, there’s so much anticipation of what the Inquisition will do to Don Rolon should they learn what the curse does to him that it starts to feel like a physical weight pressing you down as you read on. So many people you come to care for are in so much danger that you rush towards the ending, just to put yourself out of the misery of uncertainty. And while I wasn’t necessarily happy with the ending, it did suit the book magnificently.
The book takes place in Spain, but the protagonists are all invented - including the royal family. The curse makes the book a very light historical fantasy, though it reads like historical fiction. If you like political intrigue and touches of horror in your stories, you’ll love this.