The Vatican Princess by CW Gortner

Since putting together my recent post on historical fiction covers, I seem to be feeling more critical than usual of the covers of the books I read.  I really don’t like this one as not only is it (almost) one of the faceless women covers I highlighted, but there’s nothing about it to suggest the darkness and intrigue usually associated with the Borgias.  Fortunately, though, I did enjoy the book – with a few reservations.  

Set in Renaissance Italy, The Vatican Princess is narrated by Lucrezia Borgia – seductive, manipulative and a well-known poisoner.  Or was she?  Actually, in this version of the Borgia story, she is none of those things.  CW Gortner is very sympathetic to Lucrezia’s situation, portraying her as a vulnerable young woman used by various members of her family to their own advantage and to further their own ambitions.  The novel opens in 1492, with Lucrezia’s father, Rodrigo Borgia, bribing his way to the papal throne as Pope Alexander VI (the second book I’ve read this month featuring a papal conclave).  Lucrezia is only twelve years old but that’s old enough to be useful to her father in securing political alliances and, with this in mind, Rodrigo marries her off to Giovanni Sforza, Lord of Pesaro.   

Lucrezia’s marriage to Giovanni is not a happy one and although it will eventually be annulled and she will marry again – twice – this period of her life forms the largest portion of The Vatican Princess.  It’s a very eventful period and one with plenty of mysteries and controversies, providing endless possibilities for an author to explore.  Why did Lucrezia enter confinement in the Convent of San Sisto while the annulment of her marriage was negotiated?  Did she have a secret son?  Who murdered her brother, Juan?  And was Lucrezia really involved in an incestuous relationship with her other brother, Cesare?  Gortner offers answers, or at least theories, to all of these questions, while showing Lucrezia in a generally very positive light and suggesting that she had much less control over her own fate than is often thought.    

As our narrator, Lucrezia is engaging and easy to like, but I couldn’t help feeling that she was a little bit too innocent and too good to be true – and this made her less interesting to read about than she should have been.  I thought the ambitious Rodrigo was portrayed well, but Cesare needed more complexity and Juan was purely evil with no nuances to his character at all.  However, I was intrigued by the other main female characters in the book: Lucrezia’s mother, Vannozza; the Pope’s mistress, Giulia Farnese; and Lucrezia’s sister-in-law, Sancia of Aragon.  I would be interested in reading more about all of these women, as they have not featured very heavily in the few other fictional accounts of the Borgias that I’ve read so far.       

This is the second novel I’ve read by CW Gortner and although I did enjoy it (and always love a Renaissance Italy setting), I preferred the other one, The Last Queen, which was about Juana of Castile.  I would like to read more of his books, but I don’t really feel drawn to his Tudor mystery series – published as Christopher Gortner – or his recent novels on Marlene Dietrich and Coco Chanel, so that would leave either The Queen’s Vow (about Isabella of Castile) or The Confessions of Catherine de’ Medici.  Have you read either of those?  Which should I read first?     

As for the Borgias, maybe I’ll have another attempt at reading Blood and Beauty by Sarah Dunant soon.  I struggled to get into it the first time but am happy to try again!

Prince of Foxes by Samuel Shellabarger

Prince of Foxes This was the book chosen for me in the Classics Club Spin a few months ago; I’m a day late posting this review (the deadline was yesterday) but I did actually finish the book in time. It has taken me a while to decide what to say about this wonderful novel and I probably still haven’t done it justice! I had at least three reasons for adding Prince of Foxes to my Classics Club list in the first place: it’s a classic historical fiction/adventure novel published in 1947 and set in Renaissance Italy, a period I love; it sounded very similar to the work of Rafael Sabatini, an author I love; and it came highly recommended by The Idle Woman, whose blog I love. It seemed inevitable, then, that I would love the book itself – and fortunately I did.

In 1500, when Prince of Foxes begins, Italy is divided into a collection of city-states which are constantly at war, leaving them vulnerable to foreign invasion. Our hero, Andrea Orsini, dreams of seeing the country united under one ruler and has entered the service of the ruthless and powerful Cesare Borgia, son of Pope Alexander VI. We first meet Andrea in Venice, preparing to undertake a mission for the Borgias. He has been given the task of travelling to Ferrara to try to negotiate a marriage between Alfonso d’Este, son of Duke Ercole, and Lucrezia Borgia, Cesare’s sister. When the d’Estes hear about this, however, they decide to have Andrea killed in Venice before he can reach Ferrara – but the murder attempt is foiled and the hired assassin, Mario Belli, ends up switching sides and joining Andrea on his journey.

If he is successful, the Borgias have promised to reward Andrea with the strategically placed hill town of Città del Monte, and the town’s ruling lady, the beautiful Camilla degli Baglione, as his wife. The problem is, Camilla’s husband, the elderly Lord Varano, is still alive and must be disposed of before Andrea will be able to claim his reward. As Andrea gets to know both Varano and Camilla, he finds that he’s not at all sure he’ll be able to betray them into the hands of Cesare when the time comes. Torn between his loyalty to the Borgias (and the personal ambition which goes with it) and his increasing love and respect for Camilla and her husband, Andrea is faced with making a decision which could affect not only his own future but the future of Italy.

As well as navigating his way through this delicate political situation, Andrea and Belli have a number of adventures involving battles, duels, clever disguises, last-minute escapes, sieges, miracles and all sorts of trickery and deception. I was right in thinking that this book would be similar to Sabatini; in particular, I kept being reminded of Bellarion (a previous Classics Spin read) which is also set in Renaissance Italy and includes many of the same elements. But while I remember feeling irritated by the perfection of the main character in Bellarion, I did like Andrea Orsini. He’s another hero who is good at everything, but with just enough flaws and ambiguities to make him interesting. Mario Belli was my favourite, though – and I can’t say too much about him without spoiling the story!

I also loved Camilla, an intelligent and courageous woman with a sense of humour, although other female characters such as Lucrezia and Angela Borgia felt less well developed. Moving away from the novel’s central characters, there’s also a fascinating supporting cast consisting of assorted dukes, lords and ambassadors, soldiers (including the Chevalier de Bayard) and saints (Lucia of Narni). The language used throughout the novel always feel appropriate to the time period and the dialogue is subtle and witty.

Not being an expert on the Renaissance (although I always enjoy reading about it and am gradually building up my knowledge) I found that I was learning a lot from Prince of Foxes as well as being entertained by it. It really is a great book and if anyone else has read it – or seen the 1949 film version with Tyrone Power and Orson Welles – I’d love to know what you thought.

City of God by Cecelia Holland

City of God Since 1966 Cecelia Holland has written over thirty novels, most of them historical fiction, and some are now being re-released in ebook format by Open Road Integrated Media. As I’ve never read any of her work before, I was pleased to receive a copy of her 1979 novel, City of God, via NetGalley.

City of God is set in Rome at the beginning of the sixteenth century and, as the subtitle suggests, it is A Novel of the Borgias. With the former Rodrigo Borgia now Pope Alexander VI, the Borgia family already wield a large amount of influence in Rome, but the Pope’s illegitimate son, the condottiero Cesare Borgia, is now turning his attention to conquering the rest of the Italian city states. Cesare, known as Duke Valentino, has a reputation for being cruel and ruthless and even as he plots and schemes his way to power, his enemies are conspiring against him.

We see all of this through the eyes of Nicholas Dawson, secretary to the Florentine ambassador to Rome. Raised at a Spanish monastery after his English parents died in Pamplona, Nicholas is a man who seems to have no real connection or loyalty to any particular country or city. This makes him an ideal target for Valentino, who has his eye on Florence and needs a spy within the Florentine embassy. Nicholas has already been secretly rewriting the ambassador’s dispatches to suit his own political views – will betraying Florence to the Borgias be the next step?

As this is the first Cecelia Holland novel I’ve read I didn’t know what to expect – and I was quite surprised. This is a book with a very dark and claustrophobic atmosphere and the writing is completely unromantic, focusing firmly on the political machinations of Nicholas and the Borgias and the intrigue of the Papal Court.

I didn’t find this an easy book to read, but that’s because I’m not very familiar with the Borgias or the history of Rome in this period and Holland does seem to assume that the reader has some previous knowledge. She doesn’t spend much time explaining the negotiations, alliances and conflicts between Spain, France and the various Italian city states, but expects us to already understand the politics involved. I do like historical fiction that makes me think and that encourages me to look things up for myself so I can learn about the period, but I did wish I had known more about the subject before I started!

The characters in City of God are very unlikeable. The book doesn’t challenge the popular view of the Borgias as scheming and corrupt – Alexander is a Pope who gambles and who has mistresses and children, while Cesare is brutal and unscrupulous and Lucrezia, his sister, is the subject of gossip and suspicion – and the people around them are not much better. I found nobody to sympathise with or to admire, not even Nicholas. This wasn’t a big problem, though, as I can often still enjoy a book without liking the characters – and at least they were interesting.

Nicholas himself is a fascinating, complex character but it’s never obvious where his loyalties lie or if he even has any at all. He appears to be motivated by self-interest, ambition and the desire for power, and he enjoys using his brains to give advice to the Borgias and to act independently of the Ambassador. I’m not sure I ever fully understood what Nicholas was trying to do, but something that happens right at the end of the book made me think again about what he was hoping to achieve. Nicholas is also a gay man living in a time when it is dangerous to be openly homosexual and this adds another layer to the novel. His relationship with a young man called Stefano is an important aspect of the plot (though don’t expect a great love story, as even this part of the novel is free of romance and sentiment).

City of God was an interesting and unusual read; I didn’t love it but I do want to try another of Cecelia Holland’s books as I think I might prefer one with a different setting. Now that more of her books are being made available again I’ll have plenty to choose from!

I’m counting this book towards Week 3 of the Forgotten Histories Reading Challenge – Read a book with an LGBT protagonist.