Mother Maria Santa Hilda

(creator: Annamaria Alfieri)

Annamaria Alfieri
Mother Maria Santa Hilda is the Abbess of the Convent of Santa Isabella de los Santos Milagros in Potosí in Alto Perú (in what is now Bolivia) in 1650. Just after her 30th birthday, she had been sent from her Spanish convent to found this Convent of Santa Isabella. She had wanted this chance to "give her sterile life some meaning" by finding "employment for her prideful intelligence, an outlet for her passions - for adventure and a taste of the exotic New World."

But now that the convent had been built, and its great church almost completed, she felt her responsibilities "weighed like boulders". Hers was a contemplative order but in years of silence, "she had developed the unconscious habit of speaking aloud her private prayers" .... She prayed to the Holy Spirit to inspire her, but so far she had prayed in vain." And her liberal ideas about the place of women were attracting the attention of the local Inquisitor.

Annamaria Afieri is a pen name used by author Patricia King who has also published five business books about management and careers under her real name. A world traveller and lover of South American history, Annamaria Alfieri lives in New York City. This is her first novel. She says next to nothing about herself on her website, and I would welcome more information about her (via my guestbook).

City of Silver (2009)
City of Silver
is set in Potosí in old Peru, which, because of its silver mine, is the richest city in the Western Hemisphere - but not the happiest. It is 1650, and Inez de la Morada, the cherished daughter of the rich and powerful Mayor, mysteriously dies at the convent of Santa Isabella, where she had fled in defiance of her father. It looks as though the girl committed suicide, but Mother Abbess Maria Santa Hilda believes her innocent and risks her own life to have her buried at the convent in sacred ground. Fra Ubaldo DaTriesta, local Commissioner of the Inquisition, has been keeping an eye on the Abbess, who is too "Protestant" for his tastes, and this action may be just what he needs to convince the lazy, cowardly Bishop (isolated, he feels, in "this dreadful country") to punish her. Mother Maria has just four days in which to save herself and her convent by proving it is murder.

At the same time, Potosí finds its prosperity threatened. The King of Spain has discovered that the coins the city has been circulating throughout the world are not pure silver and is sending his top prosecutor and the Grand Inquisitor to mete out punishment. With the imminent arrival of the Spanish officials, many have reason to prove their loyalty, and keep hidden the crimes and sins they've committed. With her life at stake, Mother Maria finds herself in a race against time to discover the true cause of Inez's death, aided by her fellow sisters, a Jesuit priest with a dark secret in his past, and a tomboyish girl who's run to the convent to avoid an unwanted marriage. Together they discover that Inez was not the girl she seemed, and that greed has no limits.

It makes an interesting story, notable for the conviction with which the historical background is described. The large cast of characters, complete with difficult Spanish names, sometimes gets rather confusing, but the author has helpfully provided a cast list to help sort people out. The story is, of course, fiction, but the background history and the city of Potosí seem all too real: " The people of Potosí were capable both of passionate devotion to the Holy Mother Church and enormous greed. They competed in their devotion and especially in their extravagance. Don Jerónimo Andrade dressed himself and his bodyguard of eighteen in capes so laden with silver embroidery that they could barely walk .... They tolerated violence, mayhem, drunkenness, and debauchery. Every day, irritable young men fought duels over the most trivial points of honor. Murders and rapes were constant occurrences. Yet Potosinos had built some of the most beautiful churches in Christendom. They gave dowries to poor maidens. Some achieved a religious mysticism that in its most extreme seemed to the priest, God forgive him, indistinguishable from madness. Others gave alms with abandon ....Yet the city's pillars of generosity paid their mita Indian workers only ten pesos a month, barely enough for food. From these meager wages they had to buy their own tools, even the candles they carried in the mine. Nothing was left to feed their families."

The author starts with the quote, "Those who think it is not easy for a woman to succeed in whatever she attempts are mistaken, for many women have surpassed men in valor, in use of arms, and in knowledge" And that is certainly true in this book as it leads up to a climax when two women, armed with swords, take on a whole band of guardsmen and battle therir way out of a highly dangerous situation. And women like Ana, wife of the head of the city council, is every bit as unsentimental as her husband: "From the first, she had loathed her boorish clown of a lowborn husband - his coarse speech, his rough manners - everything about him, except his sex .... Each night, when she lay down and drew the finely embroidered marriage linen over her, she welcomed the only part of him that interested her - what he thrust through the slit in the sheet." The male characters throughout are nearly always shown as less effective and altogether less interesting than the women.

Mother Maria has to fight to make herself heard in a man's world. "Beware," the local Commissioner of the Inquisition warns her, "You have brought our notice on yourself by teaching women to read and write, by putting ideas of independence in their young heads. You would do better to support the feminine virtues: modesty, seclusion, chastity, fidelity." He named them as if they were mountain peaks no woman could properly climb ....
"I will struggle to be holy," she said.
"A struggle that goes on forever," he said sanctimoniously.
But it is she who notices the tell-tale signs that someone has broken into the convent vault, suggests to her sisters that they should test a possibly poisoned drink by feeding it to the convent cat, and uncovers a secret hoard of silver. And it is she who sees the necessity of involving the local priest, Padre Junipero, in her detective work.
The actual plot sometimes loses pace (there seems, for example, an unnecessarily lengthy description of the triumphal arrival of the Visitador General), but it all builds up to an exciting climax in which Mother Maria has to face the Inquisition. For a first novel, it is a considerable achievement. Recommended.

The author has her own
website and there is a short interview with her on the Historical Novels site, and another on the Number One Novels site.

Please sign my GUEST BOOK. All comments, contributions (or corrections) welcomed!


City of Silver cover
The rather restrained cover rightly suggests the historical accuracy of a very interesting first novel.
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