Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Book Review: The Royal Art of Poison by Eleanor Herman

I don't know about you, but I like my history with a healthy dose of murder. I also like my science with a healthy dose of history and murder (science goes down harder so it needs two spoonfuls of sugar.) Added bonus for all involved if there's also mystery and snark. If all of this is sounding intriguing, you must read The Royal Art of Poison.

It's not a silly book. The author really has done her homework. And she has pulled together lots of historical documents along with modern medical analysis and the occasional modern exhumation to try to piece together which royals may have been poisoned, which may have been poisoned accidentally (perhaps by their own hand through makeup, accidentally when people just didn't know certain things were poisonous, or even purposefully by well-meaning doctors trying to cure the royal of a preceding poisoning or other malady), and which may have died by some other medical issue, such as disease, that may have mimicked some symptoms of poison. Turns out to be a lot of all of the above. A lot of royals were accidentally poisoned one way or another. And some thought to have been poisoned weren't.

Along the way you'll learn some fun science, about for example how the lead in makeup in the Elizabethan era would destroy your skin, forcing you to wear more and more makeup to cover your ravaged skin, creating a hideous cycle. And also how it may have contributed to Elizabeth's volatile temper in her later years. Ah, vanity. And boy, being a royal taster was a bad job. Not to mention ineffectual as most poisons are not fast-acting. I also liked the creativity of some poisons, some of which were laughable (like opening the envelope of a letter that had been poisoned with a poisonous perfume, supposedly could kill with a couple of whiffs. Nope.)

This was a thoroughly enjoyable history of poisonings, attempted poisonings, accidental poisonings, and assumed poisonings. Much fun!

I got this book for free through my employer, Macmillan, which is also the publisher.

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