A poisoner in the court of the Borgia pope strives to protect His Holiness by rooting out an assassin, in the third of a series.
Francesca Giordano, daughter of a Jewish courtier to the Borgia pope Alexander VI, inherits her position when her father is murdered by assailants still unknown. This is only one of the mysteries tormenting Francesca; increasingly she has begun to suspect that her mother, Adriana, did not die while giving birth to her, as she was told. A professional poisoner, Francesca serves Alexander as a contract killer and also as a taster, examining and sampling every dish he is served. With cold calculation, or with the blood-thirsty frenzy that sometimes overtakes her, she has killed several men. She’s the confidante and intermittent mistress of Cesare, the Pope’s son, who has lately been impressed into the priesthood at the rank of Cardinal. Fearing plague in Rome and those who would thwart the Borgias’ plans for world domination, the Pope’s court, including his 13-year old daughter Lucrezia, decamp to the fortified town of Viterbo. Their entourage includes an unruly delegation of Spaniards from the court of Isabella and Ferdinand, tolerated because an alliance with Spain is crucial to Borgia ambitions. A series of sudden deaths among the household staff, which Francesca, who also serves the Borgias as a coroner, is at a loss to explain, leads her to suspect that an assassin may well have infiltrated the court. But who is the killer’s target? The Pope, Cesare, Lucrezia, Francesca herself, or Herrera, the dissolute Spanish envoy who hates Francesca, not least because she’s his rival for Cesare’s affection? Needing someone to trust, Francesca befriends an abbess who knows the truth about Adriana’s death. The persecution of the Cathar heretics two centuries before also has repercussions for Francesca and her charges. That Poole manages to hew a path through this thicket of complications is a testament to her considerable expository skill.
A welcome antidote to the usual melodramatic Borgia fare.