Leonardo di Vinci is the court engineer to Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, in the late fifteenth century. The Duke, a.k.a. Il Moro, decides he wants to have a human chess match and Leonardo is in charge of making it happen. When one of the white bishops does not return from a break in the action, Leonardo sends his apprentices to look for him. Dino is the apprentice who finds the bishop dead in a secluded garden. And when Il Moro saddles Leonardo with the task of discovering the murderer, Leonardo enlists Dino to help in the investigation. Unbeknownst to Leonardo, Dino has a mystery of his own. So while Dino is basking in the joy of assisting his beloved mentor, he's also working very hard to keep his own mystery from being revealed.
THE QUEEN'S GAMBIT is Diane Stuckart's first book in the Leonardo di Vinci mystery series, and I have to say that it is the most unique idea for a mystery series that I have encountered. That uniqueness hooked me from page one, but the strengths of this novel just keep the reader anxiously turning pages.
Strength number one: the characters. Leonardo di Vinci is the epitome of the Renaissance man. History has documented that, so it isn't difficult to believe that he has a multitude of talents. Plus, Stuckart doesn't give him unbelievable talents like some of our modern-day superman-like protagonists. The choice of Leonardo as a protagonist is rather ingenious, actually. Stuckart's fictional sidekick, Dino, is equally wonderful. Dino is the narrator of THE QUEEN'S GAMBIT and the reader sees the plot much like one sees it in a Nero Wolfe, Sherlock Holmes, or John Ceepak mystery. Like Archie, Watson and Danny, Dino worships his mentor, and obviously that injects a bit of a bias in the point of view.
My favorite character would definitely have to be the tailor, Luigi. His hard shell exterior is covering a sentimental, fatherly interior, and he injects comedy into the plot. Only one in a cast of excellent minor, supporting characters ranging from the poor servants up to the royalty.
Strength number two: the historical setting. I'm not a historian, so I don't know all the minor details of fifteenth century Milan, but from an amateur's eye, Stuckart did a great job of setting the scene. The description of clothing, Leonardo's experiments, the art supplies used to paint, even the evolution of chess. One of the elements I had the most fun with was the dialogue. Obviously the book is written in English, but Stuckart makes a nice blend so that the reader can have a taste of the time period but not a difficult time interpreting. I think I may add "Saint's Blood!" to my vocabulary.
Strength number three: the plot. The mystery of this novel is multi-layered, and the characters are often working in circles to try to figure out why their clues are leading them to the wrong conclusions. Chess was the perfect game for Il Moro to choose to enact with live people. The actual game was analogous to Leonardo and Dino's investigation: complex, intelligent and often deceiving.
While I've pulled out and listed these strengths individually, the blending of them is what makes the entire book work so well. While I didn't want the book to end, I was assuaged by the fact that I already have the next book in this fun series, PORTRAIT OF A LADY. I'm looking forward to rejoining Leonardo and Dino in yet another fifteenth century adventure!