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Riley, Judith Merkle 1942–

Riley, Judith Merkle 1942–

(Judith A. Merkle, Judith Astria Merkle Riley)


Born January 14, 1942, in Brunswick, ME; daughter of Theodore Charles, Jr. (a physicist) and Helene Raphaela Antonia (a concert pianist) Merkle; married W. Parkes Riley II (a political scientist), June 19, 1971; children: Elizabeth Antonia, Marlow Francis Parkes. Education: University of California, Berkeley, B.A., 1962; Harvard University, A.M., 1964; University of California, Berkeley, Ph.D., 1974.


Home—Claremont, CA. Office—Department of Government, Claremont McKenna College, Claremont, CA 91711. Agent—Jean V. Naggar, Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency, 216 E. 75th St., New York, NY 10021.


U.S. Navy Department, Washington, DC, management intern and research analyst, 1964-66; University of California, Berkeley, 1969-71, began as acting instructor, became lecturer in political science; University of Oregon, Eugene, assistant professor of political science, 1971-82, director of Russian and East European Studies Center, 1981-82; Claremont McKenna College, Claremont, CA, associate professor of government studies, 1982—; writer.


American Political Science Association, American Society for Public Administration, American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies, PEN Center USA West, Authors Guild, Novelists, Inc., Phi Beta Kappa, Alpha Mu Gamma, Pi Sigma Alpha.


(Under name Judith A. Merkle) Management and Ideology (nonfiction), University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1980.

Contributor to academic journals.


The Oracle Glass, Viking (New York, NY), 1994.

The Serpent Garden, Viking (New York, NY), 1996.

The Master of All Desires, Viking (New York, NY), 1999.


A Vision of Light, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1989, reprinted, Three Rivers Press (New York, NY), 2006.

In Pursuit of the Green Lion, Delacorte, 1990, reprinted, Three Rivers Press (New York, NY), 2006.

The Water Devil, Three Rivers Press (New York, NY), 2007.

Riley's novels have been translated into Dutch, German, Swedish, Italian, French, Polish, Czech, Hungarian, and Spanish.


Judith Merkle Riley is a professor of government studies, a contributor to academic journals, and the author of the nonfiction book Management and Ideology. However, she is best known to general readers for her historical novels, which combine accurate period detail with romantic and supernatural elements.

Riley's first novel, A Vision of Light, tells the tale of fourteenth-century Englishwoman Margaret of Ashbury, who strives to write her autobiography with the help of a scribe in an era marked by rampant illiteracy among women of all social classes. The story charts Margaret's first marriage to a sadist who is murdered by an enraged mob, her wanderings in the aftermath of the plague, and her ultimate discovery of psychic healing powers—a gift she receives in an abandoned church amid divine light. The book then focuses on Margaret's apprenticeship with the midwife who brought her through the Black Death and the resulting persecution by some in the community who become fearful and jealous of her gift. Ultimately, the heroine marries her second husband, a wealthy merchant who supports her need to learn to read and write. Praised by some critics for its realistic depiction of medieval times, A Vision of Light is a "fascinating and factual historical romance," according to Betty Lukas in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. The critic added that the book "is a richly brocaded text that illumines this barely civilized but highly charged pre-Renaissance period."

Margaret of Ashbury's life is further explored in Riley's second novel, In Pursuit of the Green Lion. In this sequel, the recently widowed healer is coerced into a marriage with nobleman Gregory de Vilers, whose repugnant relatives make life difficult for the couple. The book centers on Margaret, who eventually develops a love for her new husband, only to receive news of his capture in France during battle and his subsequent confinement. The story then follows the heroine as she joins forces with a wandering alchemist on a journey through Europe in search of her beloved knight. Some critics for delighted in the novel's detailing of Margaret's travels, the authenticity of which was derived from medieval pilgrimage documents. Others praised Riley's work for its vivid description of the heroine's entanglements with the ghosts of her past and her final battle of wits with a Satan-worshiping nobleman.

The Water Devil completes Riley's "Margaret of Ashbury" trilogy. The novel centers on Margaret's dealings with her quarrelsome father-in-law, Hubert de Vilers, who is embroiled in a legal dispute over an oak grove that houses a mysterious and perhaps magical pond. The pool is reputed to be inhabited by a water sprite, and when Margaret comes to Hubert's assistance, she finds herself involved in a spate of village scandals. Cynthia Johnson, reviewing The Water Devil in Library Journal, called it "a riotous Chaucerian mixture of the sacred and the pagan," while a Publishers Weekly contributor described the work as "a sometimes funny, sometimes dramatic, but always compassionate love story with a perfect ending." A critic for Kirkus Reviews stated that Riley's "wit and irreverent take on the period keeps sentimentality from swamping her tale."

In another of Riley's historical outings, The Oracle Glass, her setting shifts to seventeenth-century France. The protagonist of the novel, Genevieve Pasquier, is handicapped by her deformed leg but gifted both with an exceptional intelligence and the power to foretell the future by gazing into water. After running away from home as a teenager, she is adopted as a protegée by Catherine Montvoison, an actual historical figure from the era who served French aristocracy as a fortuneteller and abortionist. The action of the book plays out at the court of Louis XIV in both Paris and Versailles. Elements of the horrific abound in the concluding chapters of the novel, which include witch hunts and scenes of torture and execution. A Publishers Weekly reviewer, while noting that Riley's "impressive knowledge of the time is offset by wooden characterization and predictable plotting, nonetheless granted that "for readers who enjoy an exotic setting with a celebrity slant, the novel offers an intriguing vacation read."

Margaret Flanagan, writing in Booklist, praised Riley's The Serpent Garden as "a Renaissance adventure that features an exquisite blend of history, intrigue, and high romance." The heroine of the novel, Susanna Dallet, has been trained by her father, a Flemish painter, in the technique of miniature portraiture. After her husband is murdered, Susanna must employ her skills to support herself. She achieves not only success but also renown. After becoming the official "paintrix" for the court of British King Henry VII, she is chosen to accompany the king's daughter, Princess Mary, who is traveling to France to be wed. At the same time, at first unbeknownst to Susanna, she has become the transporter of a rare manuscript that holds the secret to an ancient mystery. With the help of a newfound romantic interest, and the beneficent intervention of supernatural forces, Susanna keeps the manuscript from falling into the hands of a secret society that seeks to use it for its own nefarious ends. The Serpent Garden offers readers "lavish historical fiction with an inventive psychic twist," Flanagan concluded.

The title The Master of All Desires refers to a magical box containing the disembodied living head of Menander, a magician who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for eternal life. Anyone possessing this box can have their wishes granted in exchange for selling his or her own soul. Set in sixteenth-century France, the plot of Riley's novel involves the attempts on the part of Queen Catherine de Medici to obtain the box, which has fallen into the hands of a young poetess, Sibille Artaud de la Roque. Sibille has refused to request any wishes from Menander, and with the help of famous astrologer and prognosticator Nostradamus, she hopes to destroy the box. Patty Engelmann, writing in Booklist, remarked that Riley is "at her best" in The Master of All Desires, concocting "a delightful blend of history, romance, and the supernatural, served with generous helpings of wit and humor." A reviewer in Publishers Weekly drew a similar conclusion; "Lush period detail and sprightly dialogue laced with humor and courtly pomp anchor Riley's romantic adventure with stylized whimsy and historical plausibility," the critic noted.

Riley once told CA: "The leap from political theory to historical novels is shorter than it appears."



Booklist, February 15, 1996, Margaret Flanagan, review of The Serpent Garden, p. 992; October 15, 1999, Patty Engelmann, review of The Master of All Desires, p. 423.

Kirkus Reviews, September 1, 1990, review of In Pursuit of the Green Lion; March 15, 1994, review of The Oracle Glass, p. 34; October 15, 2006, review of The Water Devil, p. 1042.

Library Journal, December 1, 2006, Cynthia Johnson, review of The Water Devil, p. 114.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 30, 1989, Betty Lukas, review of A Vision of Light.

Publishers Weekly, August 24, 1990, review of In Pursuit of the Green Lion; April 11, 1994, review of The Oracle Glass, p. 241; November 1, 1999, review of The Master of All Desires, p. 76; December 4, 2006, review of The Water Devil, p. 36.


Judith Merkle Riley Home Page, (July 1, 2007).

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