Published: 21 June 2012
Genre: Historical Fiction
In 1576, five years after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire at the Battle of Lepanto, a ship slips unnoticed into Venice bearing a deadly cargo. A man, more dead than alive, disembarks and staggers twoards the Piazza San Marco. He brings a gift to Venice from the Turkish Sultan. Within days the city will be infected with bubonic plague - and the Turks will have their revenge.
For months the plague wreaks havoc on Venice. In despair, the Doge summons the architect Andrea Palladio and offers him a commission: the greatest church of his career, an offering to God so magnificent that Venice will be saved. Palladio's own life is in danger too, and it will require all the skills of Dr Annibale Cason, the city's finest plague doctor, to keep him alive. But what Dr Cason has not counted on is the other passenger who disembarked from the Turkish ship - a young and beautiful harem doctor whose skills will more than match his own.
Feyra, a young woman who applies her skills as a doctor in the harem of the Sultan, is shocked when she learns the Sultan’s mother is not only a Venetian woman but also her mother. As the dowager Sultana lies on her deathbed, Feyra also learns the Sultan has an evil plan to send a plague infected ship to Venice with her father as captain. Appalled, Feyra stows on board, determined to escape the clutches of her half-brother, as well as stopping the ship from reaching its destination. However, Feyra ultimately fails and learns her father is implicated in a wider plot to bring down the Venetians.
Disguised as a Venetian, Feyra manages to get work in the house of an architect, Andrea Palladio, who has been commissioned by the Doge of Venice to build an impressive church which he hopes will deliver Venice from the plague. It isn’t long before Palladio is privy to Feyra’s real identity but he is so inspired by her tales of the magnificent mosques in Constantinople, his ideas finally begin to flow.
As the plague continues to spread, the Doge employs a brilliant doctor, Annibale Cason, to ensure Palladio doesn’t succumb before the church is finished. However, Feyra’s presence in Palladio’s house is discovered and to ensure her safety, Annibale is persuaded to take her to the island he is using as a plague hospital. Annibale is intrigued by Feyra’s medical knowledge, even though their methods often clash, but it isn’t long before they develop romantic feelings. Just when Feyra thinks she has found everything she could possibly want, fate intervenes once more and threatens everything she holds dear.
The Venetian Contract is my third Marina Fiorato book and is possibly my favourite to date. Set in sixteenth century Venice and Constantinople, the story weaves a magical tale of east meets west, and I loved the contrasts between the Christian and Muslim worlds. Initially, I was surprised at the idea of a Muslim woman being a doctor, but it soon became obvious that Muslim women had far more freedom in the Ottoman empire than their present day equivalents. It is Feyra who is a little shocked at how backwards the Venetian women appear in contrast with their lack of education. I was little sorry we didn’t spend more time in Constantinople but that is a world I’m hoping to explore further in other books.
The medical knowledge of Annibale and his colleagues is presented very well and it is obvious Fiorato has done a lot of research into the various treatments used to cure those with plague. Most of the methods seem very archaic but allowances have to be made for the time period when religious superstition was predominant, and Annibale has to wear the mask of the plague doctor which is creepy enough to scare anyone to death. Feyra’s methods seem very modern in contrast, especially variolation, an early form of inoculation that was actively being used in the east.
Although I love the historical elements of Fiorato’s novels, I always feel her characters are a little overwhelmed by the spectacular settings and don’t really come to life. This time, Feyra felt far more real to me but her romance with Annibale is a very muted affair and never really alights. While Annibale is given his own point of view throughout most of the novel, I felt he disappeared somewhat towards the end as Freya dominated the story line.