The Master of Verona is set in Northern Italy in the early 14th century. At the beginning of the novel the great poet Dante Alighieri, after years of exile from Florence, has been invited to the city of Verona by its ruler, Francesco della Scala, known as Cangrande. Dante and his two sons, Pietro and Jacopo, arrive in Verona at a turbulent time for the city; not only has war broken out with Padua, but Cangrande’s heir, Cesco, has been the target of an assassination attempt.
When seventeen-year-old Pietro impresses Cangrande with his courage and loyalty, he becomes caught up in Verona’s battles with Padua and is also entrusted with trying to help protect the life of baby Cesco. As if this wasn’t enough, Pietro’s two best friends, Mariotto Montecchio and Antonio Capecelatro have both fallen in love with the same girl and an ancient feud between their two families looks set to be reignited…
This was one of the final books I read in 2012 and I finished it just in time for it to make my list of favourite books of the year. It has taken me a while to actually write this post as there’s so much going on in the novel and so many different aspects to the story, it’s difficult to know where to begin! First, there’s a link with Romeo and Juliet; although this is not a retelling of Shakespeare’s play, Blixt suggests a possible theory to explain how the feud between the Montagues and Capulets may have originated. I noticed allusions to some of Shakespeare’s other plays too, but the story could still be understood and enjoyed even if you have no knowledge of Shakespeare at all as this is just one small element of the novel.
The plot does become quite complicated and some concentration is needed at first to keep all the characters straight, especially as many of them are also referred to by their titles or nicknames (Cangrande, for example, is sometimes referred to as Francesco della Scala, the Scaliger, the Greyhound or the Capitano). However, I never had any problems understanding what was happening and could even manage to follow the battle scenes! This is a great book for those of us who like our historical fiction novels long, detailed and complex but with plenty of action at the same time. There’s always something happening, whether it’s a battle, a chase, a festival or a duel. One of the most memorable episodes of the story describes Pietro’s participation in the Palio, a dramatic horse race through the streets of Verona. It’s all breathtakingly exciting and makes the book a much quicker read than you might expect considering the length of it.
But it’s not all non-stop action; in quieter moments, the characters have lots of discussions on religion and philosophy, mainly with reference to Dante’s work – the concepts of Heaven and Hell, the significance of stars, etc – which made me wish I had actually read Dante so I knew what they were talking about! He is definitely on my list now for future reading. There are also some fascinating passages in which we see the 14th century literary world of booksellers and scribes through the eyes of Dante’s daughter, Antonia Alighieri.
Many of the characters in the book are real historical figures of the period. Cangrande, the ‘Master of Verona’ who is believed by some to be the legendary ‘Greyhound’ or saviour of Italy, is fascinating and charismatic, a complex character with several different sides to his personality. As all good historical fiction novels should, this book left me wanting to know more about the real life Cangrande. Dante himself is someone I have never read much about, so knowing very little about his life, I have no idea how accurately he was portrayed in this book. The spelling Alaghieri is sometimes used in place of Alighieri but the author explains his reasons for this both in the text of the story and in his notes at the end of the book, and again, I don’t really have enough knowledge of Dante to be able to comment on this. There are some strong and interesting female characters in the book too: I’ve already mentioned Antonia, but there’s also Katerina della Scala, Cangrande’s sister. And even little Cesco, despite being not much more than a baby, has a very strong personality of his own.
The only negative thing I can say about this book is that the dialogue felt a bit too modern at times (I’m sorry for mentioning this yet again – I feel as if I’ve been complaining about the dialogue every time I’ve reviewed historical fiction recently!) but luckily I was enjoying the story so much I could overlook the occasional word that didn’t sound right.
This book is the first in a series and I’m already looking forward to reading the second one, Voice of the Falconer!