Another sojourn with the infamous Borgias from the author of Blood and Beauty (2013).
Since the publication of The Birth of Venus (2003), Dunant has built a solid reputation as a practitioner of historical fiction who specializes in the Italian Renaissance. Even in a period with a surfeit of larger-than-life characters, Pope Alexander VI and his children, Lucrezia and Cesare, stand out, so it’s no surprise that Dunant would revisit this family. Although the material is rich, this isn’t the writer’s best work. There are anachronisms—or, at the very least, moments that lift the reader right out of 16th-century Italy. For example, there’s a “maverick winter snowfall” in the prologue. “Maverick” didn’t become a word until the 19th century, and it is too connected—etymologically and symbolically—with the American West to feel natural in a passage written from the viewpoint of Niccolò Machiavelli. Later, one of Lucrezia’s ladies compares a stoop-backed duke to a question mark. Whether a woman in this time and place would have even been capable of making this analogy is not a settled matter, but it seems unlikely, and, in any case, a storyteller does not want readers pausing to Google the history of punctuation in Italy. These might seem like small matters, but they make it hard to believe in the world Dunant has built. There are other issues endemic to historical fiction, like slightly overripe language and dialogue laden with information that everyone participating in the conversation would surely possess already. However, one of Dunant’s great strengths as a writer is in illuminating the lives of women who were able to amass and wield power despite having no authority. Even during her lifetime, Lucrezia Borgia was turned into a monster by her family’s enemies, and her name is still a byword for feminine villainy. In Dunant’s hands, she is a whole person, and that alone might keep readers captivated.
Flawed but not without interest—sort of like the Borgias themselves.