Thursday, 14 April 2016

Emma's Review: Daughters of the Silk Road by Debbie Rix

Reviewed by Emma Crowley

'She crossed over to the shelf where her father kept the dragon vase. He had placed it there when they first arrived in Venice. She took it down carefully, feeling it cool and comforting under her shaking fingers.’ 

Venice 1441: Maria and her brother Daniele arrive in the birthplace of their father, Niccolo dei Conti. An Italian merchant who has travelled far and wide, Niccolo has brought spices from India, lengths of silk and damask from the lands east of India and porcelain; a vase of pure white, its surface decorated with a cobalt blue dragon, the Chinese symbol of good fortune. 

Maria settles in her new home, watching the magnificent and bustling city come to life each morning from her bedroom window. But while her father is away travelling, she soon finds herself and Daniele in terrible danger. She must protect her brother at whatever cost, and she must guard the delicate vase. 

London 2015: Single mother Miranda is struggling to make ends meet and build a new life for her and daughter Georgie. When Miranda meets the charming but mysterious Charles, she is intrigued. Could he be her second chance at love? And why is he so fascinated by the old vase sitting on her hall table… 

Amazon link: Kindle

I thoroughly enjoyed last years d├ębut from Debbie Rix Secrets of the Tower, she took us to a time in history which I hadn't read before and I think that's what sets her apart from authors writing in the historical fiction genre. She takes a little known topic or just a brief period in history or even an object and uses it as the foundation for her story and then goes on to write an amazing book rich in detail and filled with characters you are rooting for. 

To say I was eagerly awaiting her second novel would be an understatement and when the cover for Daughters of the Silk Road was unveiled on Twitter it seemed so lavish and perfect for the era the story was based on. Again she uses a dual time frame as the centre of her story in this case modern day London and firstly Venice in the 1400's later moving to Holland. The author deftly weaves a tale between the time periods that gelled well together. I had recently read a book using the dual time frame format and in that case the old and new elements of the story didn't gel well together. Rather they read as two separate stories but here Debbie has done a masterful job of allowing the connections to come together across hundreds of years. The most prominent connection being a Ming vase first given to a traveller/merchant/explorer Niccolo dei Conte. This vase plays a crucial role in the tale that  unfolds. Immediately I had plenty of questions and was keen to discover just how a vase from the Ming dynasty ended up on a hall table of a house in Sheen London in the modern day? Why was it there and what adventures and secrets could it tell if enough digging and searching ensued?

The book is divided into three distinct parts and the chapters take us back and forth between present day London and to wherever the vase may be at the time in the past. In London Miranda is a single mum to 15 year old Georgie, divorced from husband Guy she works part time in a struggling bookshop and has a small knitting business on the sidelines. But as with any woman who has an ex who doesn't pay what he should, Miranda is struggling to pay the bills. She longs to give Georgie the luxuries any teenager deserves instead of scrapping together dinners from a near empty fridge in the hopes they will last a day or two. Miranda had inherited a vase from her Great Aunt Celia on her death and it now sits on the hall table, a place to throw keys or unwanted bits of paper that Miranda can't bear to look at. One day into the bookshop comes enigmatic Charlie Davenport an antiques collector and dealer. He buys a rare edition of a book and catches Miranda's eye. She hasn't felt that spark in years and can hardly imagine that such a man would have any interest in her. But stranger things have happened and soon Charlie has integrated himself into the family. Miranda can hardly believe her luck that love may be around the corner for her, but one question remains why does Charlie have such an interest in the old vase that Miranda really never wanted it? After all it really is only a dust collector but she can't part with it because of her Aunt. Miranda despite struggling financially seemed to have a wise head on her shoulders so I can't fathom why she didn't feel that Charlie was too good to be true. I felt he wasn't all that and that maybe he had ulterior motives. Miranda's story and connection to the vase proved interesting but it really was the travels of the vase in the past that intrigued me the most.

Initially I did think the story would focus just on Maria dei Conte and her family in and around the 1440's but instead Debbie set herself a huge task of tracing the history of the vase for several hundred years. But I have to say she nailed it in all aspects as there must have been an incredible amount of research undertaken particularly into the history of Venice and Antwerp and all the trade routes with the mysterious East. The sights, sounds, smells and hustle and bustle of the cities and areas  mentioned in the book just jump off the pages. Debbie's way with words made the story come to life. My only fault is that as we jumped further into the future and successive generations it did slightly become repetitive and I did become confused as to who was who and how they all connected back to a person. I had to put this out of my mind and just enjoy the journey of the vase with the question ever burning in the back of my mind just how could a vase brought to Europe in 1441 end up in a London house in 2015. 

Maria is the daughter of Niccolo dei Conte returning from the East with his family after many years of travel bringing with him with goods and gifts from the Emperor amongst those vase with a picture of a dragon - a vase which supposedly brings good luck to all those who have it with them. Devastation strikes when Maria's mother and two siblings are struck with the plague in Egypt. Maria, her father and brother Daniele are all that are left and must forge a new life for themselves in Venice - the island built upon the sea. Having never visited Venice or any of the cities featured in the book I felt the author brought the places to life and really did an excellent job of describing the history, customs and sights. I got to know more about the cities in the past so vastly different from what they are now and it made me realise just how far we have come in all aspects of our lives including travel, buying and selling, the day to day running of households and also in medicine. Maria's story proved the most fascinating to me and I wish it could have gone on longer but the author knew the book needed to be kept moving forward to keep the reader engaged.

Maria settles into her life in Venice even though her father must go away to tell the story of his travels. She looks after Daniele and explores the markets and waterways even meeting a merchant named Peter Haas. You could tell straight away that the pair had a connection and were made to come together despite all the obstacles that may arrive in their path. One thing that struck me about Venice at the time was the number of convents and just who was placed in them and what the nuns got up to. You couldn't imagine anything like that happening now. I wouldn't call it being liberal but my god that certainly put themselves at risk and in this story one convent in particular had a crucial role to play. What happened next had me very very angry at the injustice of it all and all  because of jealousy and bitterness. The scenes on an island were powerful and realistic but made me even more angry at what Maria goes through despite her strength, courage and love. She was forced to endure things no one should witness. 

One thing that shone through in this book was the power of love and family connections. It was highlighted perfectly down through the generations and also how one object even if the legend or belief behind it can give people hope in times of trouble and strife. As I've said I'd have loved more of Maria's story but the author needed to show the reader what happened to the vase and although it was interesting enough the connections and family generations became a bit muddled for me and I lost track. The latter half of the book had a mystery element missing even though it was very much present in Miranda's story. We also seemed to stop around 1650 which left a significant gap to explain and I felt this was rushed considering all the previous detail we had read about. The author had put so much effort into the sections set in the past but then realised I have written x amount of words and I need to wrap this up and establish the connection with the present.

That said I really did enjoy this book although I think Secrets of the Tower slightly edges out Daughters of the Silk Road but that is just my personal preference. Both stories came to life on the pages and having the vase as the object of connection across the generations was a clever idea that had me hooked for the majority of the book. Now having read two books from Debbie Rix she has proven to me just what a storyteller she is as she takes her readers on a journey through the past to a time that should not be forgotten.This book is beautifully crafted novel full of secrets, love, friendship and family bonds with a few elements of not so nice character traits of people thrown in. Definitely one not to be missed.

Many thanks to Bookouture via NetGalley for my copy of Daughters of the Silk Road to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.

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