One of Shakespeare’s most infamous villains gets the widescreen historical-novel treatment.
In Othello, Iago is a consummate manipulator whose scheming turns murderous, and the source of his bloodthirstiness has long been debated by actors and scholars. In his debut novel, Snodin attempts to fill out Iago’s back story. But though he’s the novel’s titular character, Iago doesn’t fully enter the narrative until nearly halfway into the book, and he isn’t truly its lead. That role belongs to Gentile Stornello, a 15-year-old introverted Venetian noble who accidentally becomes entangled in the effort to bring Iago to justice. After Gentile falls afoul of a bully from a rival family, he enters the orbit of Venice’s chief interrogator, who thinks that Gentile’s youth and bookishness might better extract information from the captured Iago than conventional methods. It’s a contrived setup, but it gives Snodin room to pursue a variety of themes: As Gentile and Iago interact, the author explores Renaissance-era attitudes toward philosophy, warmongering and romance. Torture too, and Snodin’s narrative uncomfortably suggests that nothing can make a man out of Gentile quite like routine beatings by interrogators. Yet if Gentile weren’t toughened up, he wouldn’t be worthy of Franceschina, the bully’s beautiful girlfriend, whose affections he tries to win. Which is to say that the book is a familiar coming-of-age story with a touch of Elizabethan finery. Snodin’s résumé includes popularizations of classics for radio and television, experiences that serve him well here: His paragraphs are punchy and straightforward, peppered with just enough history and bits of Italian to convey authenticity. But Iago’s character never really deepens: We learn plenty about his capacity for viciousness, but the climactic revelations about his past history feel underwhelming.
A likable page-turner about love, war and conspiracy in the early 16th century. Just don’t expect Shakespeare.