Saturday, November 26, 2011

Review of The Queen's Gambit by Diane A. S. Stuckart

Diane Stuckart's debut effort featuring Leonardo da Vinci as sleuth extraordinaire is a pleasing cozy mystery. Set in the late fifteenth century at the cast of the duke of Milan Ludovico Sforza, The Queen's Gambit is told in first person from the perspective of Dino, a young apprentice of Leonardo's. The reader soon discovers that Dino is actually Delfina della Fazia, a young woman in disguise. Running away from a life of wife-hood to a man much older than her, Delfina transforms herself into Dino and disappears to Milan. It is impossible for a female to become an apprentice painter, especially to one as renowned as da Vinci. Painting has become her passion and her downfall as a young woman.

The story opens during a break in a live chess match and Dino has stumbled upon the body of the duke's cousin Orlando, the young Conte di Ferraro. He/she reports the crime to the Master, who instantly puts his amazing intellect and some of his fascinating inventions to work solving the mystery.

To the chagrin of the other apprentices, Dino is at the Master's side almost constantly during the investigation. In spite of all her efforts, Delfina's gender is discovered by the local tailor but she manages to negotiate the man's silence, which works in her favor when she is nearly killed when she gets too close to two of the suspects in the conte's murder.

Having a young woman disguised as a man is an interesting choice for sleuth but it may lie in the author's protection of da Vinci. In her author notes, she touches upon suggestions that the Master was gay, but decided to keep his sexuality in question in the story. It could be that Stuckart address this by having da Vinci show more than a passing interest in an apprentice, subconsciously attracted to, unbeknownst to him is actually a beautiful young woman, thus preserving the Master's reputation. Delfina is attracted to the Master, depicted here as a handsome, muscular man, unaware of the raw magnetic sexuality he exudes.

The pains Delfina takes to preserve her identity tend to become amusing at best, but annoying at worst. Occasionally it borders on tiresome.

What doesn't fail to entertain are the glimpses into the genius of Leonardo da Vinci as Delfina/Dino describes various projects, the artistic abilities and the thought processes of the Master. Stuckart even takes a light-hearted swipe at Dan Brown as if his research into Leonardo was lacking.

It's refreshing to see Leonardo da Vinci come alive in this wonderful debut.

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