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The Serpent Garden

3.93  ·  Rating details ·  1,464 ratings  ·  113 reviews
The book opens in Tudor England, where Henry VIII and his Machiavellian counselor Cardinal Wolsey are scheming to put an English heir on the French throne. They are arranging to marry Henry's pretty, frivolous younger sister, Mary, to the aging king of France, and they are succeeding thanks in no small measure to a breathtaking miniature of Mary that has been delivered sec ...more
Paperback, 480 pages
Published May 1st 1997 by Penguin Books (first published January 1st 1996)
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Average rating 3.93  · 
Rating details
 ·  1,464 ratings  ·  113 reviews

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Oct 23, 2015 rated it liked it
Another long tale of a woman (another young widow of a detestable, quite evil and completely neglectful husband)who makes her own way forward during the late Middle Ages. This one leaves England for the continent and plies her trade of producing exquisite painted miniatures. Most for the wealthy and noble classes. She's innovative and quite bright and begins by selling them with the understanding they were the work of her late husband.

Enjoyable read with all categories of information and context
May 02, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
What a tremendous find. I can't believe I'd never even heard of Judith Merkle Riley until two days ago--her books fit right into my favourite niche, historical drama rich in detail and earthiness but absolutely winging with fantasy and cosmic in narrative scale. I was a little skeptical at first of how she weighted the story between the historical story and the theological drama playing out in the background, mostly because I enjoyed the details of Susanna's artistry and journey so much and want ...more
Kate Quinn
May 06, 2009 rated it it was amazing
For all the books out there about the Tudors, there isn't much about this epoch: Henry VIII's sister Mary's brief marriage to the King of France. Judith Merkle Riley picks this as a backdrop for the story of Susannah, daughter and widow of painters, and consummate artist herself. Her skill at painting portrait miniatures leads her to a post with the scheming Cardinal Wolsey, who sends her overseas to the French court with Princess Mary. Susannah unwittingly becomes the target of a band of religi ...more

There is a good book in The Serpent Garden! It's just... much shorter than the Serpent Garden actually is. In this book, Susanna Dallet is a miniaturist in the early reign of Henry VIII. A miniature she does of the king's sister Mary catches the eye of Cardinal Wolsey, and she ends up in his service. After several delightful chapters of doing everyday painter's work, Susanna accompanies Princess Mary when she goes to France to marry the king for reas
Jul 07, 2011 rated it really liked it
This poor book has been sitting on the shelf for years. I decided to change its fate.

The words charming don't usually come to mind when I read a book, but there was something charming, strange and giddy about this story detailing the trials and tribulations of a clever, talented 16th century widow who turns to miniature portrait painting to make her way in life after her despicable painter husband is murdered.

The writing style demands attention. At times the third-person narrative breaks in mid
Apr 12, 2009 rated it did not like it
It is rare that a book is so terrible that I can't even finish reading it. Well... welcome to that book! Argh! ...more
Jul 20, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
One of the best historical fantasies I have read in ages.

It's got a sort of Good Omens feel to it with angels and demons popping up in 16th century England and France.
MB (What she read)
Dec 06, 2010 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Artists, Art-Historians, Readers who like Historical Fiction w/a sense of humor
Loved it! Especially enjoyed the details about painting miniatures, the artist POV, and the absolutely delightful characters! I found Hadriel and Belphagor, rival angels, absolutely delicious--they reminded me of Good Omens.

Evidently, from other reviews, JMR is satirizing Dan Brown's Angels & Demons in this, but I haven't read that book (and don't plan to) so can't speak to that. I imagine I missed some of Riley's humor due to that lack, but found this book to be lovely and humorously light-hear
Oct 28, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: 16th-century, fantasy
I enjoyed The Oracle Glass so much I decided to read another book by the same author. After finishing it, I am somewhat at a loss as this one is not even three fourths as good as the first. Taking place at the time of Henry VIII's youngest sister, Mary marrying the old King Of France, the heroine is a newly made widow trying to make a living by painting. That is something women did not do at the time but as Susanna has even more skill at it than her deceased husband, she is able to pass off the ...more
Jan 04, 2010 rated it really liked it
Left penniless after the murder of her lecherous, spendthrift husband, Susanna Dallet is forced to rely on her natural wit and artistic talent to provide for her household. Like her biblical namesake, Susannah is beautiful, virtuous, and slandered. Most of the men around her believe she has a secret lover who is the real painter because it is obvious that no woman could be so talented. Those who do recognize her ability, such as the sinister Cardinal-to-be Wolsey, regard her as a freak but do no ...more
Feb 05, 2010 rated it liked it
I really REALLY want to give this 3.5 stars, mostly because I have been in a reading fever the last few days not wanting to put this book down. However, there were too many things about the book that annoyed me to really give it the 4, especially considering how I've been rating GGK and such lately. I absolutely LOVE historical romance, and the setting of this was fascinating--painters, courtiers, and priests in and on the fringes of Henry VIII-era Tudor England and France. I liked the main char ...more
Rachel Weingarten
Jan 06, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Merkle Riley's books can be hit or miss, but what generally works are her concepts and her incredible eye to historical detail- this has both. Her magic realism can be a bit off putting at times, but the idea of taking uncredited paintings and weaving together a tale of a strong woman's history- just brilliant. ...more
Dec 10, 2010 rated it liked it
A really great book shows us how everything is great and worth to die for
Gail Daley
Jul 01, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
All Art is Deception

This is my favorite of all Riley’s books, perhaps because the heroine is an artist like myself. Susana Dallet is left the widow of a painter at a time when artist Guilds didn’t allow women to paint no matter how talented they were. Since her husband was murdered by the husband of another woman with whom he was committing adultry, he was no loss.
He also departed the world leaving Susana broke and with no means of supporting herself. On the advice of the widow downstairs, she
Jun 19, 2018 rated it really liked it
Even though it's slow going, "The Serpent Garden" is worth the effort. A dense novel, it's packed with historical and artistic references, an engaging heroine and fascinating locations. It's gentle narrative can lull the reader to sleep (not a bad thing as I read every night to unwind) but it's fun and interesting especially if you're like me, a sucker for the era of Henry the VIII and English and French history.
"The Serpent's Tale" follows the fortunes and misfortunes of Susanna Dallet, a young
Jun 05, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I got this paperback book quite some time ago, but hadn't read it because I have found books on my kindle to be much more convenient to read. Until the coronavirus came along, I was doing a large percentage of my leisure reading on a treadmill or exercise bike or during lunch or breakfast. All of those situations involve keeping a print book open without using hands and that can be a challenge.

With my reading opportunities changed, I decided I should get to any print book I hadn't read and reme
May 31, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This book is not quite like any other book I've ever encountered. It has a bit of the DaVinci Code, but better written. It has a bit of the Canterbury Tales, but longer, and more modern. It has a bit of history and a bit of humor. And best of all, it has Susanna.

Susanna's voice will stick in my mind for a long time. She's clever and ambitious, but she's also good-hearted and caring. She's well-meaning, but not afraid to be a little deceptive to get by in a man's world. She's wonderful.

This book
Irene White
Feb 18, 2020 rated it it was ok
It was ok - couldn't finish it. The novel has 2 main storylines that might have been more interesting on their own (or at least if they were more intertwined). Ultimately about halfway through, I realized I didn't find the main character interesting anymore - she was an ultimately ordinary person with a great talent and that was all. Hearing so many times that people are awed by a character's talent gets grating when it doesn't advance the story or change things, and the main character herself w ...more
Malavika Kesavan
Apr 30, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Great read. I was surprised how much the supernatural elements added to this novel (when I first read the description I was a little confused), but it added to the sort of mysticism that people likely had back then. I was impressed the author did an amazing job. One of the few historical books I’ve read with strong female character who (I thought) wasn’t really anachronistic. The author did an amazing job of immersing a reader into a world. Definitely a nice vein of humor that ran throughout the ...more
Dec 02, 2017 rated it really liked it
Not a book for everyone. Things you need to know to truly understand the plot:

1. Every day life in Tudor London
2. The rights (or lack thereof) of women in Tudor London
3. Politics in France in the early reign of Henry VIII

If you have a passing knowledge of these three items, the book is very engaging and compelling, the characters true to their era and believable. If you lack this knowledge, it is likely that you will not be able to connect or empathize with the plight of the various characters.
Aug 27, 2017 rated it it was ok
I completely enjoyed "A Vision of Light" and "In Pursuit of the Green Lion", but Riley's other books didn't grab me. While this and her other books are well written, they were just too dark and did not have the humor that I find necessary to make a story... human. This one strikes me the same as most of her other books. I have found that they tend to appeal to women more than men. ...more
Apr 14, 2020 rated it it was amazing
What a delightful book! An unexpected pleasure, for sure. A woman painter, angels, romance, the French court, and a witty writer to tie it all together in a delightful story. Reading this reminded me of A.S. Byatt, one of my favorite authors. I can't put my finger exactly on why, except that it was a deeply pleasurable experience. ...more
Deborah Armstrong
May 25, 2017 rated it liked it
There were parts of this book that I enjoyed including the details about painting in miniature, life in the tudor era, the pompousness of Wolsey, the French court. But the the occult, supernatural plots were ridiculous, unnecessary and distracting. without them it would have been 4 stars.
Oct 26, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Was surprised by the tone of this book. It's a very cute read. Dashes of feminism, pinches of religious humor, and a bunch of history and satire. I was reminded of Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. Also Game of Thrones just because one of the hardest part of this book was the density ...more
Jul 28, 2019 rated it liked it
There are some very good bits in this book, I got quite engaged in it at the beginning, but some subplots are confusing or outright bad. I ended up wondering how this book found its way in my list. A pity, there was a lot of promise here. I'll probably still read another book by the same author. ...more
Oct 17, 2020 rated it really liked it
A fantastical look at 16th century politics told through the lens of Susanna, a miniature painter. Complete with angels and demons, this is a great blend of historical fiction and fantasy with a dash of romance thrown in.
Sep 26, 2018 rated it really liked it
confused now on what i have read of hers, but enjoyed them enough to read again.
Jan 03, 2019 rated it liked it
I liked the parts grounded in reality: the art and the politics. I didn't need the angel and demon part, although it did make for nice plots and counter-plots. ...more
Sadie McCarley
Nov 18, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I love all of her books, and this one was as wonderful as they all are! Humorous and witty. Loved it.
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Judith Astria Merkle was born on January 14, 1942 in Brunswick, Maine and grew up in Livermore, California, U.S.A. Her great-grandfather was a Swiss emigrant, who moved to the United States in 1860. Her uncle-abue was the famous player of baseball Fred Merkle. Her father, Theodore Charles Merkle was contralador of the Project Pluto and her brother Ralph C. Merkle is technological professor in a Co ...more

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