This originally appeared as part of the Author Appreciation series on the r/fantasy forum. You can check out more of the Author Appreciation series here.
Judith Merkle Riley is not known as a fantasy writer, but an author of historical fiction. However, all of her works do include elements of the supernatural/the occult/fantasy, so I feel like I’m not off-base by bringing up her writing here as they are very much speculative fiction in that sense.
I stumbled across Riley’s works back in the 90’s at my local library when I was going through my Anne Rice obsession and the cover of The Oracle Glass caught my eye and made me take a closer look. So glad I did because she quickly became one of my favorite authors and has remained so to this day.
A Short Biography
She was born in Maine in 1942 as Judith Astria Merkle but grew up in California. She seems to have lived on the West Coast for much of her life–attaining a Ph. D. from UC Berkeley in Political Science and later teaching at Claremont McKenna College in the Government department–although she did spend time back on the East Coast obtaining at her master’s degree in Soviet Regional Studies at Harvard. She also taught at the University of Oregon for a decade through most of the 70’s and was the director of the Russian and East European Studies Center her last year there in 1982. She married and had two children, a daughter and a son. Her daughter Elizabeth works in the publishing industry. Merkle Riley passed away in September of 2010 from ovarian cancer at the age of 68.
When asked how she became interested in writing historical novels she answered, “I was pushing 50 and ready to try new things, the women’s movement appeared to be withering on the vine, and I thought the spark could be kept alive with accurate woman-centered historical novels.” Oh, Judith. ❤
Judith Merkle Riley published six novels, three in her Margaret of Ashbury series, and three stand-alone works. The first of her novels, A Vision of Light, was published 1988 when she was 46 years old.
A common thread throughout all her works is the strength of her female protagonists, navigating societies that are not meant for them, facing their struggles with practicality, wit, and often a good deal of humor. She also always has a bit of a romantic sub-plot to her novels which I appreciate.
Margaret of Ashbury Trilogy – A Vision of Light, In Pursuit of the Green Lion, and The Water Devil
A Vision of Light (1988) – This book centers around a young housewife living in medieval London. She’s married to a rich merchant and, seemingly, has everything she could want. Her husband dotes on her and when she asks for a scribe, someone to take down her life’s story, he happily obliges. The trouble is finding someone to help her in such a task. He finally finds a scholarly monk down on his luck and low enough on funds that he’s willing to do the job, grudgingly. And so we learn Margaret’s tale, from her girlhood growing up in a small village, how she learned to make ale from her resourceful step-mother, being a child bride, barely surviving the black plague, and studying under a mid-wife. After her brush with the plague, very strange thing start to happen to Margaret. If she lays hands on someone she glows and can heal them. Also she starts hearing the voice of God.
“There is nothing wrong with being a woman, and doing ordinary things. Sometimes small deeds can show big ideas.”
— Judith Merkle Riley, A Vision of Light
This book is just fantastic, in my opinion. I reread it recently, specifically for this post, and it really holds up. There are a few darker moments here and there, more of things hinted at, and Margaret’s life and those around her are not always easy, but the tone of the book remains hopeful throughout. Margaret herself is practical and while she doesn’t often make a lot of decisions on her own and is sort of just swept up in life through a lot of her tale, it’s still an amazing adventure. You get to see the resourcefulness of women of the time portrayed in characters like Margaret’s step-mother and Mother Hilde, the herbalist. And also the precarious lines they had to walk sometimes. What we’re seeing here is Margaret growing up, learning how to live in a world where her role is already decided for her and what happens when she no longer wants that role.
In Pursuit of the Green Lion (1990) – This is one of my top five favorite books of all time. In this the story directly continues from the end of A Vision of Light, so I don’t really recommend reading it without reading the first one for context. Also, I can’t really give a description without a slight spoiler for the first book so don’t read on if you mind that sort of thing.
Margaret has found herself swept up by life again, having been made to re-marry quickly into a family she barely knows. Her first priority is the safety and well-being of her two young daughters. In this book we see Margaret healing from her own wounds and learning to love again. Her new husband, trying to make a name for himself by chronicling the life of a wealthy noble, is captured and held for ransom in France after a battle. Not having the funds to free him, Margaret decides to ride to France herself to rescue him. She sets out on her journey with her old friends and some ghosts along for the ride. Yes, you read that right, ghosts.
There’s so much I love about this book. Margaret, going off defiantly, and more than a bit exasperated, to rescue her husband. Honestly, how much time she spends being exasperated with him is part of the fun. The words that come out of his mouth, most chauvinistic, don’t often match his actions and it’s clear that Margaret has had a profound impact on his life and way of thinking. And yet he remains stubbornly arrogant, repeating what he’s been taught. It’s…kind of endearing after a while. And at one point he admits that he’s been jealous of Margaret and her ability to talk with God. Only he doesn’t realize who he’s actually admitting this to because he’s delirious from fever and he thinks it’s just a doctor that’s come to see him. This scene, my heart. ❤
Margaret’s gang of friends are hilarious, especially Brother Malachai, an alchemist/con-man trying to find a way to turn lead into gold. We met him in the first book selling fake religious relics to pilgrims. They’re also very loyal and come when Margaret needs them. And the ghosts! The ghosts!
The Water Devil (2007) – This book continues the story of Margaret, her family and friends. It’s now a little while after the end of the previous book and Margaret and her family are living in the country ready for a peaceful life–finally. If only her father in law weren’t trying to sell off Margaret’s oldest daughter in marriage. Margaret’s daughter is only a child and she refuses to let her daughter be subjected to being a child bride the way that she was, married off to a man little more than a stranger. She asks her friends to help come up with a plan to thwart her father in laws ambitions. Meanwhile, there’s a water spirit dwelling in a spring on the local woodlands that is causing its own brand of trouble…
It’s not nearly as strong of a book as the previous two in the series, but it’s still a very welcome addition and has Judith’s unique brand of humor throughout. I love that we see some progression in the relationship between Margaret and her husband, Gilbert, in The Water Devil. We also continue to see Gilbert grow as a person. Sure he still grumbles a lot but it’s all bluff and bluster. In the end he always does what’s right. Also, it’s nice to get a picture of their family life together. No grand adventures in this book, but a tale of home. With some added fun such as water spirits!
The Oracle Glass (1994) – Genevieve Pasquier is a girl that is too smart for her own good. It’s 17th century France during the reign of the Sun King. Genevieve grows up learning to read and love philosophy from her father. She often goes with her mother to the fortune teller although her mother despised her from birth for being born ugly, covered in hair and with a twisted foot. She never warmed up to her. Everyone in her family turns out to be rather horrid and eventually, through circumstances, Genevieve ends up being taken in by her mother’s fortune teller, the frightening woman known as La Voisin. Under her tutelage, Genevieve learns to read futures within the water and transforms into Madame de Morville, an old mysterious woman who can read fortunes. For the first time, as Madame de Morville, she finds herself being able to say what she wants, things that Genevieve Pasquier would have never been allowed to say. She quickly becomes in demand at the French court. Genevieve gets caught up in a dangerous game, embroiled with the court in her quest for revenge. She really does read futures in the water, vague though they may be, and those fortunes are tangled up with those in power.
This is the first of Riley’s books I ever read and it remains a favorite as well. I do think it’s the darkest in tone of all of her books (oh yes, this one does go to some very dark places) but still carries on with her strong, resourceful, female protagonists that I love so much. Although, Genevieve is very hard to like at times. She gets caught up in her new found freedom and power, and she spurns the help of some of the only people to actually care about her in favor of those that would use her for their own gains. She forgets who she is for a while in a power and drug fueled haze. And yet. You want things to work out for her. She’s been through a lot and she’s still a good person at heart. The Oracle Glass is a story about witches, a dark underside of the French court, revenge, a young woman that nearly lost her way, redemption, and love.
The Serpent Garden (1996) – This book starts out in Tudor England, the court of Henry VIII in the early sixteenth century, and follows our protagonist, Susanna, all the way to the French court. Susanna Dallet is newly widowed and finds herself in a bit of a predicament after her husband dies. It’s not his loss she’s sorry for, if truth be told, but rather that he’s left her with nothing and no means to support herself. Her husband, a painter, was also a drunk and philanderer. When an importantant client shows up and her husband is no where to be found, Susanna accepts the commission to paint a miniature herself. After all, she, the daughter of painters, was not unskilled in the art. After her husband’s death she keeps up the sham, creating further ‘found’ paintings of her husbands in order to support her household. One of her paintings garners too much attention and is brought before Thomas Wolsey and he asks (rather not leaving her much of a choice) to be his paintrix. And suddenly she’s painting all sorts of people at court. Eventually she’s sent along to France with the Princess Mary, newly wedded to King Louis XII. Things get complicated when courtiers are involved, and even more complicated when angels and demons are involved as well.
“Susanna, what you need is a man to look after you — a proper one, not a drunk or a philanderer — or sure as fate, you’ll not be safe on this earth.”
“Oh, nonsense, Nan. I had a man, and he didn’t look after me at all, and now I’m just beginning to enjoy myself.”
— Judith Merkle Riley, The Serpent Garden
Ah, this is probably my second favorite of Judith’s books, mostly because I adore the way the romance in this one plays out and I love that the protagonist is an artist. Susanna, despite having a horrible marriage, never gives up and decides to make the best of things. She realizes that there’s a certain freedom that comes with having nothing left to lose and just goes for what she wants in life. There is a bit of a mustache twirling antagonist in this one, who is literally trying to summon a demon to give him powers, but it’s all told in such a fun way that I don’t mind that at all. The angel that befriends Susanna, Hadriel, is pretty hilarious and provides quite a bit of levity to the story as well, a story that could easily get bogged down in court intrigue. And then there’s Robert Ashton, who works for Wolsey and is led to distrust Susanna even though he likes her. I really love his character as a love interest because he’s very much not an alpha male type. (In fact, none of the male love interests in Judith’s books are of that type.) Of course, I also love Nan, who has stood by Susanna since she was a child and continues to look out for her as a friend more than a servant.
The Master of All Desires (1999) – Mid-sixteenth century Paris. Catherine de Medici is Queen of France and Nostradamus is at court. The queen has a head in a box named Menander, the Master of all Desires, essentially a jinn trapped to grant wishes. But Nostradamus has realized a great evil lies there. Sibille, a poet and our protagonist, somehow gets involved with the box and is tempted by the wishes and then becomes involved in the goings on of the queen and the French court.
This is the final book that Judith completed and published before her death in 2010. (Note: The Water Devil was previously only published in German before 1999 and later an English edition was published in 2007.) I’ll admit that it’s also the one I’m least familiar with as I’ve probably only read it two or three times and all of those shortly after it was released. This one will feel familiar if you’ve read her other works. There’s a female protagonist in an unconventional role such as Susanna from The Serpent Garden. There is the French court full of witchcraft and fortune tellers that is feels very akin to The Oracle Glass. And of course there are the demons and angels in this one as well. Catherine de Medici makes for a great villain, and of course has been so in many historical novels I’ve read, but this one may have been the first I’d read. I can’t really say much more on this one, unfortunately, because my mind is a bit fuzzy on the details. I only remember liking it, because of course it has all the hallmarks of Judith’s writing that I love, but it’s not quite as memorable as some of her other works for me.
To Sum Up
I’ll forever champion these books, not only because of what they personally have meant to me, but because they’re funny, they’re feminist, and they’re full of the kind of women that I love to read about. If these sound like books you might enjoy, hope you’ll think about checking them out.