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Review of The Embroidered Book by

The Embroidered Book

by Kate Heartfield

This is one of those books I heard so much buzz about I nearly didn’t read it just to be contrary—and what a mistake that would have been. Kate Heartfield’s fantastical take on the lives of two queens—Marie Antoinette and her sister Maria Carolina, also known as Charlotte—at the end of the Enlightenment is exactly the kind of historical fiction I love. From 1768 to 1793, The Embroidered Book charts the rise and fall of these two monarchs: how they came to their respective countries, the challenges each faced, and how they rose to the occasion.

Charlotte and Antoine, as Heartfield styles them herein, are two daughters of Maria Theresa, Empress of Austria, who is anxious to secure alliances across Europe. Charlotte is originally intended to marry the Dauphin of France; however, when one of her older sisters dies from smallpox, she must step into the role of betrothed to the King of Naples, and Antoine is sent to France. Thus are their destinies decided. Yet in Heartfield’s telling, Charlotte and Antoine have a secret: they have a book with an embroidered cover that they accidentally inherited from their late governess. This book contains nigh-indecipherable spells that, with sufficient sacrifices, allow the magisters who wield them to achieve great things. Charlotte and Antoine embark on becoming rare female magisters in a world that frowns upon women and disbelieves in magic. But as they turn to magic to secure their realms and their families’ safety, the rest of Europe begins to crumble.

I’m sure this story could have been fascinating had Heartfield hewed closely to historicity and eschewed any semblance of magic. Yet for anyone who might worry that this ahistorical addition might stand out, I want to reassure you that it does not. First, Heartfield devises a clever ending that helps to align the events of this novel with the historical record. Second, the presence of magic only enhances the very real dangers and issues at play in this book.

Magic or not, the Habsburg queens were always witches. They were women, you see.

That’s really what stands out to me about The Embroidered Book: its skillful portrayal of embattled women, queens under siege not only by armies from other nations but their own courtiers and advisors as well. Both Charlotte and Antoine need to be more than chess pieces and heir-bringers, yet their gender makes that difficult to achieve. And while in reality these queens and their contemporaries might not have had the ability to enchant gloves that make people more amenable to persuasion or talk to each other through portraiture, Europe still had no issue with taking down women—especially powerful women—through allegations of witchcraft. So I like how Heartfield must have essentially approached this with the idea of “you want witches? Fine, let them be witches!”

There are two central cores of conflict in The Embroidered Book. First you have the relationship between Charlotte and Antoine. Second, the tension between competing philosophies of magic, which also feeds into the first conflict. Charlotte wants to work within the system, remake the Order of 1326. Antoine feels more comfortable working with the rogue magisters who eschew the Order at all. These sympathies mirror the two queens’ political differences as well, with France aiding the American Revolution against Great Britain while Charlotte pursues intense, autocratic and totalitarian policies to keep Naples under her thumb. As the two sisters’ uses for magic and political needs diverge, their personal relationship deteriorates apace.

At the same time, Heartfield explores the usual problems that you might expect in a story about two royal women. The pain and heartache of childbirth and child loss. Falling in love, having affairs. Not being taken seriously at court. Being terribly lonely, only to have one’s friends and allies betray one. At first I found Heartfield’s writing overly intricate and slow-paced, but her style grew on me as I came to fall in love with her characterizations of Antoine and Charlotte. The letters between the two sisters are, in particular, a highlight.

If you like historical fiction and can tolerate a drop of magic in the mix, The Embroidered Book is everything the hype makes it out to be and more. Adapt this series now, streaming services, and then never broadcast it and use it as a tax write-off!


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