In 1489 Avisa Baglatoni and her friend Lucia are the only female members of Bolognas prestigious locksmith and silversmith guild. Admittance of women into any guild would have been extremely rare; Cooper gives Avisa membership based on her widowhood and Lucia, one supposes, because her silversmith father is ill and she is unmarried.
Avisas problems begin when she chooses to hide the fact that a young man she recently employed is half Jewish. Since Jews are forbidden to learn guild trained skills, her guild membership, possessions, and even life are at stake. When Bolognas silver treasure is stolen, the mayors nephew, who repeatedly forces his unwanted attentions on the attractive young widow, suspects Avisas deception and tries to link her and Bolognas Jewish Ghetto to the theft. After hearing stories of the persecution of Jews in Spain, Avisa realizes that her safety depends on her solving the mystery of the missing treasure.
Of historical interest is the physical description of Bologna, the unruly students who attend Europes prestigious first university, the craft guilds, the reigning duke who employs mercenaries, or condottieri, to repel the advancing French armies, and the character of Dorotea, loosely based on the artist Sofonisba Anguissola. The story, however, is rather flat and the layout of the paperback version jarring with one repeated paragraph and many wide spaces between sentences. While Cooper acknowledges help from the Society for Creative Anachronism, an indication of other sources used is also needed.
This is the first book of a series. For curriculum on women in Italy in this period see The Needle and the Brush: Renaissance Florence.