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A portrait in shadow

A Portrait in Shadow by Nicole Jarvis from @TitanBooks #BookReview #Fantasy #AlternateHistory

A Portrait in Shadow by Nicole Jarvis

Titan Books, £9.99

Reviewed by Nadya Mercik

The front cover for a Portrait in Shadow by Nicole Jarvis

Step into the 17th century Florence, run by Medici, where Galileo Galilei fights for his truths and where art channels magic capable of healing or destructing. A Portrait in Shadow is a fictionalised story of the real artist Artemisia Gentileschi. It is a deeply feminist story of a woman fighting for who she is in a world run by men. It is a story of trauma, of how you are shaped by it and how you overcome it. It is an invitation into the mind of an artist. It is a story of friendships and vengeances, love and retaliation. Captivating, striking and passionate, it submerges you in the Italian heat, vibrant paints and deep emotions.

Artemisia Gentileschi was born with a talent. A daughter of a well-known artist in Rome, she is tutored from an early age and, in her adolescence, already surpasses her father. But her future is ruined when she is dragged through the trial after she has been raped by her own tutor. Artemisia refuses to be married in order to save her reputation and flees to Florence in the hope of building her career as an artist there. However, the rumours follow her, which makes it difficult to secure commissions and patrons. Becoming a member of the famous Accademia delle Arti della Magica would guarantee her a status, but it has never seen a female member before, and many oppose her nomination and discard her talent. Yet when she manages to get an invitation to Cristina de’ Medici and receives a commission from her, things gradually start to look better. She makes new friends, including Galileo Galilei. Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger commissions her a piece for the gallery to commemorate his famous uncle. Gradually members of the Accademia start to acknowledge her. Her desire to revenge on the rapist slowly dies down, and the portrait that was supposed to be the means of vengeance stays in the back of her studio, forgotten. But for a young woman in the world of men and inquisition, the blessings don’t often last long. As Artemisia becomes the target of the condemning preaching of the priest who failed to destroy Galilei, the career Artemisia has built is taken away from her. Is vengeance the only way left for her to be remembered?

Nicole Jarvis creates an intricate, vibrant world. The beauty and historical details of the 17th-century Florence are interwoven with the fantastical element. In this world, artists are supposedly the only ones who possess magic and can channel it through their art. The magic that is allowed has healing properties; you cannot create a quick cure for a severe illness or a stroke, but you can mitigate the chronic conditions as well as build up the person’s immunity and prolong their life. The Church hordes the art, and Popes live very long lives. The most successful artists are canonised as saints. Rich people also try to surround themselves with paintings, tapestries and sculptures; they do not always value the artistic component – sometimes art is just the means to improve their health. However, artists can hurt with their magic as well. Necrotic power woven into the painting or a fresco can curse you, kill you and even start a plague. The latter is responsible for the Grave Age when artists were hunted down and the art was forbidden. I really loved how Jarvis re-interpreted the art through magic and worked it into the societal structure.

My copy of the book is full of sticky page markers marking the pages where Artemisia contemplates her passion, her artistic process, what it demands of her and what it gives back. As a writer myself, I related to these ideas and found them accurate and evoking. One of Artemisia’s patrons is very old and very sick – he demands quick paintings full of magic but doesn’t even look at the things portrayed. Such a utilitarian approach pains Artemisia – she spends her time and her life energy to cure him, but there is also the expression of herself in what she is painting and how that the patron is oblivious to. There is an amazing debate between Artemisia and a healer she befriends about magic taking the artist’s life away while remedies can be used instead. A huge part of the novel is a conversation about art, its potential, its toll and its appreciation by those involved and those consuming it.

And, of course, A Portrait in Shadow is a feminist narrative, a narrative of trauma which people try to hush up. As Jarvis writes in her Author’s note, for every “gruelling trial” like Artemisia’s, there are countless stories of women who weren’t heard, who kept suffering, and who never got their justice. In the book, Gentileschi doesn’t have a clear path to overcoming the trauma. There are moments when she is consumed with vengeance and hatred when she believes that there is no other way for her to establish herself rather than use the necrotic magics to destroy her offenders, even though they will eventually kill her – either directly or she would be sentenced to death for the usage of them. In the end, the release comes from a different source, but it doesn’t undermine the strength of Artemisia and the fight she went through.

The book boasts great characterisation. I might have been indignant a few times at Gentileschi’s action, but I knew why she was acting like that. Moreover, the novel brings people from all kinds of backgrounds together – there are rich and powerful Medici, the Church, the artists but also the common folks – Maurizio, who models for Artemisia, Elizabeth and her husband, who sell salves at the market, the rich merchant Francesco Maringhi, who owes his treasure only to his own business wit.

A Portrait in Shadow by Nicole Jarvis

Titan Books, £9.99

Reviewed by Nadya Mercik

Step into the 17th century Florence, run by Medici, where Galileo Galilei fights for his truths and where art channels magic capable of healing or destructing. A Portrait in Shadow is a fictionalised story of the real artist Artemisia Gentileschi. It is a deeply feminist story of a woman fighting for who she is in a world run by men. It is a story of trauma, of how you are shaped by it and how you overcome it. It is an invitation into the mind of an artist. It is a story of friendships and vengeances, love and retaliation. Captivating, striking and passionate, it submerges you in the Italian heat, vibrant paints and deep emotions.

Artemisia Gentileschi was born with a talent. A daughter of a well-known artist in Rome, she is tutored from an early age and, in her adolescence, already surpasses her father. But her future is ruined when she is dragged through the trial after she has been raped by her own tutor. Artemisia refuses to be married in order to save her reputation and flees to Florence in the hope of building her career as an artist there. However, the rumours follow her, which makes it difficult to secure commissions and patrons. Becoming a member of the famous Accademia delle Arti della Magica would guarantee her a status, but it has never seen a female member before, and many oppose her nomination and discard her talent. Yet when she manages to get an invitation to Cristina de’ Medici and receives a commission from her, things gradually start to look better. She makes new friends, including Galileo Galilei. Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger commissions her a piece for the gallery to commemorate his famous uncle. Gradually members of the Accademia start to acknowledge her. Her desire to revenge on the rapist slowly dies down, and the portrait that was supposed to be the means of vengeance stays in the back of her studio, forgotten. But for a young woman in the world of men and inquisition, the blessings don’t often last long. As Artemisia becomes the target of the condemning preaching of the priest who failed to destroy Galilei, the career Artemisia has built is taken away from her. Is vengeance the only way left for her to be remembered?

Nicole Jarvis creates an intricate, vibrant world. The beauty and historical details of the 17th-century Florence are interwoven with the fantastical element. In this world, artists are supposedly the only ones who possess magic and can channel it through their art. The magic that is allowed has healing properties; you cannot create a quick cure for a severe illness or a stroke, but you can mitigate the chronic conditions as well as build up the person’s immunity and prolong their life. The Church hordes the art, and Popes live very long lives. The most successful artists are canonised as saints. Rich people also try to surround themselves with paintings, tapestries and sculptures; they do not always value the artistic component – sometimes art is just the means to improve their health. However, artists can hurt with their magic as well. Necrotic power woven into the painting or a fresco can curse you, kill you and even start a plague. The latter is responsible for the Grave Age when artists were hunted down and the art was forbidden. I really loved how Jarvis re-interpreted the art through magic and worked it into the societal structure.

My copy of the book is full of sticky page markers marking the pages where Artemisia contemplates her passion, her artistic process, what it demands of her and what it gives back. As a writer myself, I related to these ideas and found them accurate and evoking. One of Artemisia’s patrons is very old and very sick – he demands quick paintings full of magic but doesn’t even look at the things portrayed. Such a utilitarian approach pains Artemisia – she spends her time and her life energy to cure him, but there is also the expression of herself in what she is painting and how that the patron is oblivious to. There is an amazing debate between Artemisia and a healer she befriends about magic taking the artist’s life away while remedies can be used instead. A huge part of the novel is a conversation about art, its potential, its toll and its appreciation by those involved and those consuming it.

And, of course, A Portrait in Shadow is a feminist narrative, a narrative of trauma which people try to hush up. As Jarvis writes in her Author’s note, for every “gruelling trial” like Artemisia’s, there are countless stories of women who weren’t heard, who kept suffering, and who never got their justice. In the book, Gentileschi doesn’t have a clear path to overcoming the trauma. There are moments when she is consumed with vengeance and hatred when she believes that there is no other way for her to establish herself rather than use the necrotic magics to destroy her offenders, even though they will eventually kill her – either directly or she would be sentenced to death for the usage of them. In the end, the release comes from a different source, but it doesn’t undermine the strength of Artemisia and the fight she went through.

The book boasts great characterisation. I might have been indignant a few times at Gentileschi’s action, but I knew why she was acting like that. Moreover, the novel brings people from all kinds of backgrounds together – there are rich and powerful Medici, the Church, the artists but also the common folks – Maurizio, who models for Artemisia, Elizabeth and her husband, who sell salves at the market, the rich merchant Francesco Maringhi, who owes his treasure only to his own business wit.

The historical period, the Galileo trial, the Church, the sodomite laws and the interesting facts (like the invention of gelato) add to the richness of the story. In the novel, the true story of Artemisia Gentileschi is used as a starting point, and some of the facts are changed to better illustrate the themes. Still, I must confess I was a bit surprised to see the mention of St Petersburg city in the text, as this town was founded only in 1703, while the story happens in the first half of the 17th century. But this small thing did not mar the general fabulous impression of the book. I will definitely keep an eye on Jarvis’s future books.

The historical period, the Galileo trial, the Church, the sodomite laws and the interesting facts (like the invention of gelato) add to the richness of the story. In the novel, the true story of Artemisia Gentileschi is used as a starting point, and some of the facts are changed to better illustrate the themes. Still, I must confess I was a bit surprised to see the mention of St Petersburg city in the text, as this town was founded only in 1703, while the story happens in the first half of the 17th century. But this small thing did not mar the general fabulous impression of the book. I will definitely keep an eye on Jarvis’s future books.

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