Earthquakes, Spying, and Love

Author: Jessica Dall

Cecília de Santa Rita e Durante wants excitement, change, adventure. She is tired of being the good Portuguese lady, waiting at home, accompanying her mother and sister to Mass, looking at the ships in port and wishing that just once she could take one, feel the heaving sea beneath her feet and her dreams flying free. As the old adage goes, though, sometimes you have to be careful what you wish for. On All Saints Day, 1755, while Cecília is out of the house, one of the largest earthquakes in history pulverizes Lisbon. Barely alive and stuck with a protestant Englishman as they wonder through the cracked and broken city together, Cecília has to wonder if anyone in her family survived, if there is anything left of her old life. And that’s only the beginning of the adventures that soon Cecília will wish she had never desired.

As political factions vie, the Inquisition gaining a strong foothold in Portugal, the Age of Enlightenment is sweeping across Europe, and the First Minister, Senor Carvalho, is setting up an inescapable empire. Forced to live in the palace with her questionable Uncle, Tio Aloisio, and still haunted by the aftermath of the earthquake and its affect on her surviving sister, Cecília is soon captured in a web of intrigue that she cannot escape. Forced to spy for Carvalho, she starts by listening to court rumors, but is soon on the trail of her surviving family and even the palace priests. Only the Englishman, the irresistible John Bates, can sympathize with what Cecília has been forced to become to survive. And, ironically, only he can get her out of an escalating mess.

Depiction of the Lisbon earthquake; Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I’ll admit, history is one of my weak points. Beyond the confines of Hamilton, I’m pretty hopeless, with my knowledge of US history being only slightly better than world history. I was one of those kids in school who didn’t like history, mainly because it felt like a memorization exercise (something I am terrible at) as opposed to actual stories of real people. The Stars of Heaven puts all this on its head: it takes a monumental series of historical moments and tragedies and populates them with enough seething emotions, betrayals, and political intrigues to make George R.R. Martin happy.

Cecília starts out as a likable protagonist: the rebellious lady that wants to shuffle off the stays off society (see what I did there) and embrace a freedom not meant for women at all, especially “ladies.” Cecília is rambunctious, dutiful but just rebellious enough to make her special and get her in plenty of trouble. As Cecília wonders out into the world though, and witnesses tragedy and death, she begins to question everything from the structure of society to God. Why would He let such a thing happen and what do all His signs to her (if that’s what they are) mean? Have her desires for a different world resulted in all this tragedy? Where can she possibly go from here?

When Cecília’s sister, Bibiana, is removed from the wreckage of her home, unable to do anything other than murmur the rosary on repeat, everyone else calls it a miracle. Here is a living saint. Cecília, however, sees it as a disaster. Bibiana is gone, replaced instead by a sick automata. This is where her doubts escalate, about other people and about God, but certainly not where they end. The soul churning doubt and questioning is Cecília’s ever constant in a world of shifting loyalties.

Carvalho (who really does not look at all pleasant); Unidentified painter, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Enter the palace intrigue, where for once Cecília is part of the throbbing pulse of something. Mortified by what she has been forced to leave behind, she still has enough youth to embrace the change and enjoy what seems like a dream come true. But spying has its downsides and soon Cecília realizes that she is in over her head and that corruption has many different faces and never ending demands.

As the story draws all the threads together into a complex character and life, John Bates waits off stage, a romantic interest that delivers just enough zest (and one spicy love scene) to keep hearts aflutter without ruining the intensity of the drama that is surrounding the palace and the rise of a new and ruthless empire. I admit that sometimes the politics went over my head (I would have loved to understand a bit more of the difference between the current regime and Carvahlo’s modus operandi, although that would be impossible to organically seed into a story), but the undercurrent of scheming came across clearly and chillingly. As Cecília’s guilt over past and present sins, her questioning, her exposure to a slew of conflicting ideas and politics, and her yen for a forbidden man combine, the pressure mounts and the consequences escalate. By the end of the story, people will have died and no one will have a clear conscience, much less an answer for everything they have seen and experienced.

Despite my lack of historical knowledge, the story feels authentic without ever being explanatory. It settles into the time and place, pushes against it just enough to give us a sense of the surroundings without ever taking the audience on a forced tour of what makes this long ago world tick. The action progresses and is dynamic. At first I wondered how a story of an earthquake could transform into one of quiet palace intrigues and rebellious priests, but Dall worked the magic well, and by the conclusion I came away with the sense of having participated in an epic and realistic life, where all the experiences, both small and large, coalesced to create a unique person with a distinctive worldview and a realistic longing to take the path less chosen. Cecília gets her wish, and along with her we experience adventure, heartache, longing, betrayal, death, and ultimately the consequences of choices that can never be taken back. Highly recommended.

– Frances Carden

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Frances Carden
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