Book review: The Courtesan’s Lover by Gabrielle Kimm

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The one thing an ambitious and successful courtesan should never do is fall in love...

And when the setting is Naples in 1564 and there are ruthless men at large, a beautiful young woman can soon find herself in mortal danger.

Gabrielle Kimm’s sensual new historical thriller-cum-romance – the sizzling sequel to her debut, His Last Duchess – takes up the story of bit part player Francesca Felizzi and gives her a memorable starring role.

English teacher Kimm seems to have found a firm foothold in the sun-filled piazzas, glittering palaces and dark alleyways of 16th century Italy. Her rich and sensitive stories imbue traditional romance with compelling plots and a hard edge of gritty realism.

In The Courtesan’s Lover, a cast of beautifully drawn and researched characters add depth and scope to a storyline which teems with dreams and dilemmas that are relevant to women who work the streets of any town or city and any period of time.

Francesca Felizzi, former mistress of the Duke of Ferrara and mother of twin girls, is now a much sought after courtesan. Astonishingly beautiful and resourceful, she revels in the power she wields over men.

But she knows only too well that a prostitute’s expensive reputation is easily blighted and she cannot ever appear anything less than enthusiastic.

Her only real friend and confidant is Modesto, a likeable and pitiable eunuch whose position in her household is somewhere between nurse, pimp and bodyguard. He comforts her when she feels vulnerable, mends her clothes and braids her hair.

When Francesca is visited by an inexperienced young man, his heartbreaking tenderness makes it horribly clear that despite her many admiring patrons, she has never truly been loved.

The familiar landscape of her glittering and sumptuous life suddenly becomes just a gaudy façade. Overnight, the world changes and her work is no more than a stupid and tawdry game. Determined to escape her past, she makes a new and unexpected acquaintance, one that has devastating implications.

Francesca and her two young daughters soon face the sort of peril she has dreaded ever since she began to work the streets all those years ago...

The enchanting Francesca proves to be an alluring heroine, her role eclipsed only by her faithful servant Modesto, whose own story of enforced castration at the age of ten by the greedy desire of his elders to keep forever his stunning soprano voice, is both haunting and painful.

The Courtesan’s Lover is a delight, whether as a follow-up to His Last Duchess or as a gripping and fascinating stand-alone story.

The world of historical novels has a very promising new author...

(Sphere, paperback, £6.99)