Roberta Rich’s Midwife’s Trilogy proves that powerful Renaissance women don’t have to be real; they can also be fictional. Hannah Levi, the heroine of Roberta Rich’s exciting Midwife’s trilogy is an example. The three historical novels are fast-paced, the characters believable and sympathetic, the plots well structured, and the settings brilliantly portrayed. Rich is a master of sights, sounds and especially scents and odours. Your will smell the places you visit—and 16th Century Venice is worth a trip.
Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
In The Midwife of Venice, set in 1575, is the first of the Roberta Rich’s Midwife’s Trilogy. Hannah, a young Jewish midwife living in the ghetto of Venice, has her night disturbed by a Christian nobleman’s pleas. He begs her to attend his wife, who is close to death birthing the conte’s first child. Hannah knows a Jew does not midwife a Christian child. The risks are too high for the targeted Jewish community. Hannah goes against every instinct and the rabbi’s strict denouncement and brings little Matteo into the world with the birthing spoons she has invented.
Why? Because the conte pays her 200 gold ducats. Hannah desperately needs the money to free her imprisoned husband, Isaac, held somewhere in Malta. Naturally, much goes wrong, and Hannah Levi finds herself forced to flee Venice with the rescued baby whom she saved. Rich creates a thrilling plot, with well-developed characters to whom the reader feels a deep connection. She draws a rich portrayal of life in 16th-century Venice and Malta—places where people despise, target, enslave and brutalize Jews.
The sights and smells, many of them malodorous and pungent, the sense of alienation between Christians and Jews, the political and social implications of that alienation are all captured.
The Harem Midwife, the second of the Roberta Rich’s Midwife’s Trilogy, is set in the Imperial Harem, Constantinople . Hannah and Isaac Levi, Venetians in exile, haveset up a new life for themselves. Isaac runs a new business in the growing silk trade. Constantinople is much more tolerant of Jews than was Venice, and she and Isaac have made a home without fear of reprisals.
Hannah, the best midwife in the entire city, plies her trade within the opulent palace of Sultan Murat III. She tends the thousand women of his lively and infamous harem. One night, when Hannah is summoned to the palace, she confronts Leah, a poor abducted Jewish peasant girl sold into the sultan’s harem. The sultan wants her as his next conquest to produce his heir. The girl wishes only to return to the life she has known on the wild steppes. Complications arise when Isaac’s alleged sister-in-law–his brother’s widow–comes to Constantinople to collect her dowry. Religious rules require that Isaac marry this woman if he cannot repay her. Hannah and Isaac’s marriage is on the verge of collapse. Can Hannah save her marriage? Will Hannah risk her life and livelihood to protect this young girl, or will she keep her high esteem in the eye of the sultan?
Once again, the sights, sounds, smells, and colors of Ottoman Constantinople, and its famous harem come to life in this vivid narrative with its delightful and feisty heroine, its dastardly villains and its satisfying conclusion. The novel has everything you would want in a Renaissance thriller.
Set five years after the first novel in Roberta Rich’s Midwife’s trilogy, A Trial in Venice  finds Hannah back in Venice. She has been betrayed and is locked into the putrid Pozzi Prison, threatened with rape and worse. Because she is pregnant, she’s still alive. When she bears her child, she faces a dreadful end. Can it get worse?
Yes. Her kidnapped son Matteo is here and she, though pregnant, felt compelled to follow his traces. Her beloved husband abandons her. The wicked Cesca and Foscari fall out [no honour among thieves] and poor Matteo suffers, tossed from one noxious hidey-hole to a worse, while the villains plot to rob him of his patrimony. Her brother and his wife refuse to help her since her presence risks the existence of the whole Jewish community. How can she rescue her son and save her own life?
In this satisfying completion of the trilogy, the plotting is exciting and the twists convincing, the characters well drawn and engaging, and the setting colorful. Rich is excellent at smells and details of locale that bring to life diverse locations including a stinking prison chamber pot, a decaying villa and a crowded ghetto apartment.
Rich’s books are Renaissance treasures. If you are looking for good reads for yourself or as gifts, I highly recommend any one or all of them.