Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The Royal Art of Poison: Filthy Palaces, Fatal Cosmetics, Deadly Medicine, and Murder Most Foul by Eleanor Herman

Any romantically-inclined soul who waxes on about how much they'd adore going back in time to be a medieval princess or a Victorian lady should read this book. It will disabuse your idealistic preconceived notions so quickly, you'll feel as though you've been poisoned with cyanide (because it's the fastest-acting poison, you see).

I'm picky about nonfiction books - too light and frivolous, and they can cheapen the material. Too dry and plodding, and it feels like you're locked in a stuffy classroom with a droning professor. THE ROYAL ART OF POISON strikes the perfect balance of being breezy but informative, the modern-day incarnation of Bill Nye the Science Guy for the Adult Audience - if Bill Nye was as poison mad as Amy Stewart, and had a sense of humor so dark that you could almost swear you could see the stars coming out.

THE ROYAL ART OF POISON covers a pretty broad array of topics, ranging from diseases caused by unhygienic conditions (pee and poo everywhere), to medicine (arsenic and mercury everywhere), to makeup (lead and arsenic and mercury everywhere), to diet (bad water, bad food, much contamination), to outright poisonings (gasp! treachery!). The last part of the book zips to the modern day, lest you think the cushion of time preserveth you, focusing especially on the unfortunate tendency for Russian activists and enemies of state to disappear, but also talking about the poisoning of Kim Jong-un's brother and some of the tactics of the Nazis.

I think my favorite portion of the book was in the middle, where Herman presented several case studies about famous Renaissance-era people who died of mysterious circumstances. Of note was the Duc of Orleans's wife, Henrietta (you might recognize them from the show Versailles), Edward VI (Elizabeth's younger brother, and the only son of Henry VIII), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Napoleon Bonaparte. The beginning of these sections provides backstory in mini-biography format about the people in question and why they were so famous (and dangerous). Then Herman talks about the conclusions the leading scientific minds of the times reached. Lastly, she talks about any modern research that either confirms or disabuses the notion of poisoning with our technological abilities.

The subject matter being what it is, this book is not for everyone. Some of the descriptions are incredibly gnarly, and there are all manner of examples of people being cruel to one another (or to animals). That said, if you think you can handle the material, I strongly urge you to pick this book up, as it's super fascinating and informative, and taught me all sorts of cool trivia about history. If all historians were as passionate and engaging as Eleanor Herman, I think there would be a heck of a lot more history majors in the world. I, for one, was fascinated.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

5 out of 5 stars

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