Italy, 1453. Seventeen-year-old Luca Vero is brilliant, gorgeous—and accused of heresy. Cast out of his religious order for using the new science to question old superstitious beliefs, Luca is recruited into a secret sect: The Order of the Dragon, commissioned by Pope Nicholas V to investigate evil and danger in its many forms, and strange occurrences across Europe, in this year—the end of days.
Isolde is a seventeen-year-old girl shut up in a nunnery so she can’t inherit any of her father’s estate. As the nuns walk in their sleep and see strange visions, Isolde is accused of witchcraft—and Luca is sent to investigate her, but finds himself plotting her escape.
Despite their vows, despite themselves, love grows between Luca and Isolde as they travel across Europe with their faithful companions, Freize and Ishraq. The four young people encounter werewolves, alchemists, witches, and death-dancers as they head toward a real-life historical figure who holds the boundaries of Christendom and the secrets of the Order of the Dragon.
Tell Me More: It is wonderfully refreshing to find authors who are willing to bring obscure moments in history to life, and none more so than Philippa Gregory. The critical acclaim and widespread popularity she has achieved are hallmarks of her hard work, and it was that reputation that gave rise to my expectation of a solid and strong story from her first venture into YA. I began Changeling not having read any of her previous books, which may have been for the best, as I wasn’t fully satisfied with the world Gregory created.
Changeling is told through the dual perspectives of Luca, a member of a secretive religious order, and Isolde, a young heiress who is forced to become a nun. Their respective challenges were well thought out, but while Luca was charismatic enough for me to ignore some holes in his characterization, Isolde was dull and shallow for much of the novel. Often, I could predict what she was going to say before I looked any further into her conversations, and that can quickly grow tiresome. I wanted to like her and root for her, but there just wasn’t any opportunity for me to really connect with her. Her reticence was also off-putting–it was difficult to ascertain whether she truly wanted to fight for her happiness or simply settle for whatever her brother and father wanted for her. She wasn’t given the agency to own her decisions, even the ones that would put her under someone else’s control, and so I grew to see her as a leaf on the rapids, being jostled along and not knowing where it was she really wanted to go.
The story itself feels disjointed, as though two or three different fabrics were sewn together with one colour thread. The concept behind Changeling is extremely interesting, almost like a pre-Renaissance Unsolved Mysteries, but it never quite grows into its own potential. The first half of the novel is devoted to a violent mystery at Isolde’s own abbey, and the conclusion will certainly raise some eyebrows, considering the time period. I enjoyed watching Luca uncover the truth, but I do wish that Isolde had had more of a hand in the solution to her abbey’s problems. Understandable as it is that Luca and other men would find it wiser to place the abbey under the control of a monastery, it did not help the argument that Isolde is different from other girls her age, wiser and more adventurous.
Ultimately, that is where this novel falls short–the contradictions between historically accurate attitudes and the actions shown in the book created a gap too wide for Gregory to satisfactorily bridge. I’ve been told that she has an excellent grasp of historical detail, which can be seen in her other novels, but I was never given enough information to truly immerse myself in this particular time period. We are told that Luca is different, that there is something worth observing in him, but he consistently displays the same attitude as his peers. I can’t be sure if the expectations I built up for Gregory’s work in my head were responsible for my dissatisfaction with Changeling, but I am certain that based on the synopsis alone, I was asked to believe in more than what the story could give me.
The Final Say: Unsure as I am about the overall coherence and completeness of this novel, I would still recommend Changeling to readers who are starting out in historical fiction. Gregory’s writing will ease them into olden times with care, and give socio-cultural issues to dissect as well.
Philippa Gregory was an established historian and writer when she discovered her interest in the Tudor period and wrote the novel The Other Boleyn Girl, which was made into a TV drama and a major film. Published in 2009, the bestselling The White Queen, the story of Elizabeth Woodville, ushered in a new series involving The Cousins’ War (now known as The War of the Roses) and a new era for the acclaimed author.
Gregory lives with her family on a small farm in Yorkshire, where she keeps horses, hens and ducks.