It is the year 1576 and a ship carrying a deadly cargo is sent from the Turkish Sultan to Turkey's old enemy, Venice. On board the ship is a sarcophagus containing a man who is suffering from a deadly disease and when the ship steals into Venice during a storm and the cargo is deposited on dry land, within days the city is infected with bubonic plague. On board this same ship is a stowaway; a young and beautiful half-Turkish, half-Venetian, harem doctor named Feyra who has been sent on a mission from her dying mother to carry a vitally important message to the Doge. However, when Feyra is set upon by a crowd of Venetians, who consider her an infidel and an enemy to Venice, she has to go into hiding until she can manage to gain an audience with the Doge and deliver her important message.
The Doge, deeply worried at the death toll in his city, decides to build a church so magnificent that God will save Venice - and in order to keep his architect, Palladio, free from illness, the Doge employs the finest plague doctor, Annibale Carson, to attend to Palladio's health. When the number of victims from the deadly disease rapidly increases, and Dr Annibale realizes that he needs help to cope with the sick and dying, the last person he would have expected to supply this help would be a beautiful female doctor from a Turkish harem, but he has no choice when Feyra shows how talented she is in the field of medicine. And while Annibale and Feyra work together to nurse the plague victims and to attempt to develop a cure, they find themselves becoming much closer than either of them would have thought possible.
Marina Fiorato's latest novel, partly based on real characters and historical events, is an escapist adventure story with romance very firmly at its heart. Given to me by a friend to read, I must admit when I started the book that I found the style of writing a little overblown for my taste; Feyra's appearance with her amber, slightly slanted cat-like eyes, her coffee-coloured skin and abundant tawny hair, was much mentioned, as were the curly locks and handsome looks of Dr Annibale Carson. However, that said, I read this on a long train journey and found myself becoming quite involved with this story, parts of which were unexpectedly rather ghoulish, if perhaps a little over dramatic (especially when Feyra was incarcerated in the ship's hold with a diseased body in a sarcophagus!) and there were other parts that I found interesting and diverting, particularly the author's atmospheric depiction of the sights, sounds and smells of the city of Venice. In some ways this novel is a light, undemanding romantic read and in other ways, because of the subject matter, it becomes something rather more serious in nature; therefore, for some, this book would make an absorbing holiday or weekend read (if you don't mind reading about death and pestilence on holiday) or an undemanding bedtime read (if you don't mind reading about boils and bubonic plague before you turn out the light). Or put the gory bits to the back of your mind and focus on the romance and the storytelling talents of the author.