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Review: The Embroidered Book, by Kate Heartfield

A review of one of 2022's most popular historical fantasy books

I was lucky enough to be in the library last fall when The Embroidered Book, by Kate Heartfield, was on display in the new book section. This was a book I had on my TBR list and so I snapped it up, although I did have a moment’s hesitation. This is a long book (672 pages). I have to be extremely picky about the long books I read, just because my reading time is so limited these days!

But seeing as I like to keep up with what is new and popular in historical fantasy, I took it home and settled into this detailed and imaginative tale of two sisters set during the tumultuous years of the Hapsburg Empire in eighteenth-century Europe.

Two Sisters, Two Queens

Not just ordinary sisters, mind you. They are Charlotte and Antoine, two of the daughters of the Hapsburg Empress Maria Theresa. Of course, being royal daughters, they are important pawns in the building of the Hapsburg Empire, and Maria Theresa is determined to use their marriages to best advantage. In 1768, when she is fifteen years old, Charlotte is wed to Ferdinand of Naples as a hasty replacement for her elder sister, Maria Josepha, who had been pledged to Ferdinand but died of smallpox.

Antoine, too, is destined to be a queen. In 1770, when she is fourteen, she is married to Louis-Auguste, the Dauphin of France, and in 1774 when he ascends the throne and becomes Louis the XVI of France she becomes Queen Marie Antoinette.

But this book is more than just a retelling of the sisters’ lives and their relationship in that turbulent period of European history. It also includes magic.


Magic and Mayhem

When the sisters are young, their governess is murdered within the palace, a shocking event. The murderer is never found. But among her effects, the sisters find a book with an embroidered cover that contains magic spells. Spells that work, as they find out when they try them.

The magic system is interesting. The book of spells is not always easy to figure out, and the sisters are puzzled by some of the instructions and by what some of the spells are supposed to do. And they quickly discover that each spell requires a sacrifice, often a memory of something you have done with somebody or even the affection you might feel for someone. The more elaborate and significant the spell, the more elaborate and exacting the sacrifice.

The girls are very close and their shared secret knowledge makes them even more so. By the time they are married off to their respective husbands, they swear they will always keep their bond strong.

They both learn more about the hidden magic and those who practice it as they begin their new lives as queens. Both use their knowledge to advance their kingdom’s fortunes and help their people, but they begin to diverge in their opinions of how this knowledge should be used. Charlotte manages to gain a place in the secret magician’s council which controls all magic, and agrees with them that magic should only be in the hands of those belonging to the council, because it is too dangerous for just everyone to use. Antoinette, on the other hand, falls in with the rebel magicians, those who think magic should be freely available to all.

A Fascinating Time Period

I really loved that this book focused squarely on Charlotte and Antoinette, and on how they, as women, used the power that they had to fight for their family and their nations.The detailed historical and political setting of the book is fascinating. Heartfield does a wonderful job giving us a vivid picture of the times. I didn’t know a lot about the Hapsburgs other than the broad strokes, so I really liked learning more about this powerful family that had such an influence on Europe.

The late 18th century is a dangerous time. The ideas of the Enlightenment are spreading, undermining the power of the elites, especially the monarchs. Charlotte and Antoinette both have to grapple with the effects of the ever-widening calls for revolution and change in their countries. Of course, knowing what is coming for Antionette adds even more drama to the story.

On the whole, the addition of magic into the historical setting is done very well. There are times when the magical abilities of Charlotte and Antoinette impact the real-life history as we know it. It’s always interesting to see how an author of historical fantasy manages to include the fantastical elements alongside history. Heartfield does a good job at this, making it seamless for the most part. I did wish that Heartfield would have included a bit more about the magic itself, in terms of its history and discovery. It’s hidden knowledge, only for those “in the know”, but there is never an explanation of how it exactly works or how it was discovered. It’s just a little quibble, but it lurked in the back of my mind. As did the question of the relationship of the Church, at that time a powerful institution, to magic and those who practice it. This was not explored at all in the book, and I thought it a fairly big omission.

The two sisters are both distinct personalities, and I enjoyed following the ups and downs of their relationship throughout the novel. Both of them face unique challenges in their roles of queen, and both come up with ways to use the spells in order to help their people. But it isn’t always easy, and the sacrifices they make to ensure the success of the spells can be heartbreaking.

One Minor Quibble

The one downside to the novel for me was the sheer scope of time that it covers. This is more personal taste than a problem with the book. I think I’ve mentioned before that I prefer novels that focus on a more narrow span of time rather than over many years. I found myself feeling that as I read this book, too. I would just get settled into a particular span of years and what was going on for Charlotte and Antoinette at that time, when the time period would move ahead and I would have to get used to the new circumstances.

But that’s a minor quibble. Heartfield does a wonderful job showing us the ins and outs of Charlotte and Antoinette’s lives, and makes us care for both of these young women who use what they are given to make the most of the power and influence they have.

Lush settings, relatable characters, interesting magic, fascinating history. What more could you want?

A good read. I give 4/5 stars to The Embroidered Book.

Note: Kate Heartfield is a fellow Canadian author! Her new book, The Valkyrie, based on Nordic myths, is coming later in 2023.