This was the book chosen for me in the Classics Club Spin last November. I was supposed to post my review by the 4th January, but Christmas, other books and life in general got in the way of finishing it on time. Well, better late than never!
Rafael Sabatini is best known as the author of Scaramouche, Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk, but he also wrote more than thirty other books including this one, Bellarion – or Bellarion the Fortunate, to give it its original title. Bellarion was published in 1926 but, like most of Sabatini’s novels, it is set much earlier – in Renaissance Italy, in fact: a world of warring city states, tyrannical dukes and beautiful princesses, of powerful condottieri and bands of mercenary soldiers, of sieges and battles, poisonings and conspiracies.
Our hero, Bellarion, is an intelligent but naïve young man who has been raised in the monastery of Cigliano and believes that there is no such thing as sin. Shocked by his heretical ideas, the abbot sends him off to university in Pavia, hoping that he will learn something about the world while he is there. Almost as soon as Bellarion leaves the abbey, he becomes the victim of a bandit pretending to be a friar. With his money and letter of introduction stolen from him, and wrongly accused of being the bandit’s accomplice, Bellarion flees to the Palace of Casale in Montferrat where the Princess Valeria agrees to protect him.
Montferrat is currently under the rule of Valeria’s uncle Theodore, who is acting as Regent until her brother, Gian Giacomo, is old enough to take his rightful place as Marquis. When Bellarion uncovers a plot by Theodore to destroy his nephew and keep the throne for himself, he becomes entangled in a complex web of conspiracy and intrigue that will lead him to the Duchy of Milan and the court of its cruel and brutal young duke, Gian Maria Visconti.
Under the command of the famous condottiero (mercenary leader), Facino Cane, Bellarion quickly rises to become one of the greatest military captains of his time, finding that brains and quick wit can make up for a lack of physical ability and clever strategies and trickery can often work where strength and force fail. Even as he becomes more and more deeply involved in the affairs of Milan, Bellarion never forgets that everything he does is for the benefit of Montferrat and his beloved Princess Valeria. Unfortunately, Valeria has completely misinterpreted his motives and is convinced that Bellarion is her enemy rather than her friend. It seems that all his efforts could be in vain…
I loved this book, as I expected to, having enjoyed two of Sabatini’s others. Scaramouche is still my favourite, but I think I preferred this one to Captain Blood, mainly because I find stories set on land easier to read than stories set at sea! You do still need to concentrate, though, to be able to untangle the complicated political situations in Milan and Montferrat, to follow the rivalries between the two factions, the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, and to keep track of who is conspiring against whom. Also, because Bellarion is building a career for himself as a military leader, there are lots of battle scenes (large scale battles rather than the more intimate one-on-one sword fighting scenes in Scaramouche). If you’re like me and are often tempted to skip long battles and discussions of military strategies, you can’t do that here – you need to read them all carefully so that you can appreciate Bellarion’s genius!
I did have mixed feelings about Bellarion himself. There’s no doubt that he’s a fascinating character; his rapid transformation from a naive, unworldly young man to a great military commander and political mastermind is great to watch. At the beginning, with his mixture of youthful enthusiasm, innocence and intelligence, he reminded me of d’Artagnan in The Three Musketeers; later, after rising from nowhere to become a trusted leader and master schemer, he reminded me not just of d’Artagnan but also Nicholas de Fleury from Dorothy Dunnett’s House of Niccolo series. (In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Dunnett had read this book; there’s a scene with a captured supply train that made me think of The Game of Kings.)
However, there was something about Bellarion that stopped me from really warming to him as a character. I thought he was a little bit too clever and too aware of his own cleverness. You could say the same, I suppose, about Sabatini’s other heroes, Andre-Louis Moreau and Peter Blood, but they also had flaws and vulnerabilities that made them feel more human and more believable. I never felt that I really needed to fear for Bellarion; whatever difficult situation he got himself into I had no doubt that he would come out of it unscathed. I didn’t like Valeria much either – she annoyed me with her total misreading of Bellarion’s motives and the way she always thought the worst of him. To be fair to Valeria, though, she didn’t have the knowledge that we, the reader, had!
Bellarion is a fictional character, but many of the others in the novel are based on real historical figures. Characters such as Theodore of Montferrat, Facino Cane and his wife Beatrice, Gian Maria Visconti of Milan, and Bellarion’s rival condottiero, the Count of Carmagnola, are all people who really existed – although as I don’t know much about this particular period of history I wasn’t sure how much of the story was based on fact and how much on fiction until I did some research after finishing the book!
Despite not really caring for the main characters I did enjoy this book (another Classics Spin success!) and am looking forward to reading the other Sabatini novel on my Classics Club list, The Sea Hawk.