The late (1920–99) Puzo’s last novel, completed by his companion Gino, is historical fiction, about the 15th-century Borgia clan—a book on which Puzo had worked sporadically since 1983.
The scattershot composition is all too obvious. Canned history predominates, and minimal dramatic action is more often summarized than portrayed. Nor are Puzo’s characters especially compelling, though the cast includes such notable late-Renaissance figures as Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, first vice-chancellor (that is, consigliere) to Pope Innocent, then himself pontiff; the children this “son of the church” fathers on his various mistresses (such as infamous siblings Cesare and Lucrezia); and immortals like Niccolò Machiavelli, Michelangelo Buonarotti, and Leonardo da Vinci (the last of whom advises the military-minded Cesare on the construction of impregnable fortifications). The story is focused almost exclusively on shifting political alliances and the arranged marriages that create and sustain them—and machinations involving the royalty and nobility of Rome, Naples, France, and Spain tend quickly to blur together in the reader’s mind. Puzo and Gino inject some juice into the ongoing incestuous love between much-married Lucrezia and her vainglorious brother, but the latter is so preoccupied with conquering new territories (ostensibly for the glory of the church) that we soon lose interest in their fabled amorality. The fates of a Roman satirist who unwisely vilifies Cesare and of the radical Dominican friar Savonarola are promising subplots only very sketchily developed. Alas, all these gorgeously bedecked schemers aren’t anything like the charismatic monsters we expect (we know Vito and the other Corleones; Rodrigo Borgia and his brood are no Corleones). They’re number-crunching, publicity-conscious powerbrokers: a bunch of 15th-century Dick Cheneys.
The old, black magic just isn’t here. The Family is Godfather Lite. Eminently skippable.