A lively, lusty, and swashbuckling revisionist tale of 16th-century Rome whose heroine--dismissed by earlier writers as diabolical--is fulsomely rehabilitated by Prix-Goncourt winner Merle (Day of the Dolphin, The Virility Factor). Merle's version owes more to that classic Italian novel The Promise than to the usual potboilers of historical fiction. Vittoria, wife of a cardinal's adopted son, mistress and then--after many twists and tutus--wife of the Duke of Orsini, a great prince, warrior, lover, and statesman, was a woman of legendary beauty, known for her floor-length blond hair and high principles. Like her lover the Duke, Vittoria had enemies; and at a time when women were put to death for committing adultery, she had aroused enough envy for her enemies to feel confident enough to murder her after the Duke's death. Mede deftly uses a series of various voices--a cardinal, leader of the Roman Ghetto; an Arab slave girl; and the evil Count Orsini are a few--to tell Vittoria's story. And each story increases both our knowledge of this remarkable woman and our understanding of the inevitability of her end. As Vittoria falls in love with the Duke, tries to escape but cannot resist him, is suspected of killing her first husband, survives an annulment of her second marriage by a malevolent Pope, we become not only readers of a gripping story but also witnesses to an age. For this is as much a history of one woman as of a whole period: we learn why these things happen, why the personal and the public concerns inevitably intercept. Merle's sensitivity to period detail and imaginative handling of material, which lesser talents would have hyped into banality, makes for a marvelously rich, evocative, and thoughtful novel.