Ok guys, I’m not going to beat around the bush about The Blue: this is simply the best historical novel I have read this year. I had already devoured and enjoyed three books by Nancy Bilyeau set under the Tudors, the last one being The Tapestry. The Blue surpasses them all.
We are now in the 1750s in England. Our main heroine is a 24 unmarried and ambitious woman. Both an artist and a tough young lady vying for independence (she even reads Jean-Jacques Rousseau!) at a time when women were not even accepted in the artistic milieu, Genevieve’s character is richly developed.
Refused the sponsorship and training of a famous painter, she has no choice but accept her family arrangements: thanks to her incredible knowledge about colors, she will take a position as a decorator at the Derby Porcelain Works.
The prospect actually seems not such a bad idea when Sir Gabriel, a charming and rich man, offers her a deal: go work in that factory for a few months, steal their secret formula to make this astounding new shade of blue, and receive in return money and passage to Venice, where gifted women are allowed to train with painting masters.
Who is this man? The deal sounds both attractive and dangerous. But as someone would say, this was an offer she couldn’t refuse…
And now Genevieve has become nothing less than an industrial spy, with plenty of exciting and scary adventures ahead. Prepare for the ride, bumpy, full of twists and turns! She even gets trained in techniques such as sympathetic ink.
I really knew nothing about porcelain or the Derby blue. The book was totally fascinating about the whole historical and scientific background: where porcelain was first made, how Europeans learned to do it, how you come up with formulas to create colors, especially the most difficult one, the blue.
I also enjoyed a lot the descriptions of two major porcelain factories of the time, Derby and another one (I won’t tell you which nor where to avoid spoilers), still in existence today.
This material’s nickname of “the white gold” should be enough to reveal to you how important it was at the time to be the top producer in the world. I didn’t even realize industrial espionage was common practice. And it didn’t wait the 21st century and let’s say, Operation Aurora, to appear; in fact, the first case could well have been about porcelain at the beginning of the 18th century.
Porcelain is first in everything. Nothing is more important.
Color is the next field of battle in the porcelain wars. He who is able to produce the most porcelain in this new revolutionary color of blue will control the market. A vast fortune will be made.
Bilyeau’s previous novels dealt with Henry VIII’s suppression of monasteries. We are now further down the line in the religious conflict, with the consequences of the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre (August 23-24, 1572). Genevieve’s family, Huguenots (that is, Protestants), had to leave their native country of France and came as exiles in England.That’s where she lives with her grandfather – both her parents died during epidemics when she was very young.
To make things worse, England is now at war with France.
The French can never be trusted.
We meet important people (I won’t name them, again for fear of spoilers), great artists and painters of the time, for instance William Hogarth (1697-1764), “England’s greatest living painter” in these years, and Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792).
Among other interesting historic details, there’s a scene on the inauguration day of the British Museum.
The Blue has been marketed as a historical novel, but I think it’s more a historical mystery, with so much suspense inserted in the plot.
And that’s exactly where the author excelled: at combining so well a plausible plot with a spy, obstacles, and mystery, with great research about the history of porcelain. And the end she came up with is fantastic!
And look at this gorgeous cover too!
This book made me also curious on the “King’s secret”, and I’d like to read more about it, in novels or nonfiction. Recommendations please.
NB: see a nice article on the author and her book here
VERDICT: A superb combination of plot and research, rich characters, suspenseful scenes, a smart ending: The Blue reveals the perfect formula for a historical mystery focused on industrial espionage in 18th century England. Will definitely be in your list of best of the year books.
HAVE YOU READ THIS BOOK?
Or any other book on “the king’s secret”?
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In full compliance with FTC Guidelines, I received this ebook free of charge from the publisher. I was in no way compensated for this post as a reviewer, and the thoughts are my own.