Voice of the Falconer by David Blixt

This is the second volume in David Blixt’s Star Cross’d series, combining the history and politics of 14th century Italy with characters and storylines inspired by Shakespeare. I read the first novel, The Master of Verona, in 2012 and it won a place on my ‘books of the year’ list that year, which gives you an idea of how much I loved it. I really hadn’t meant to let so much time go by before continuing the series, and I worried that I might have trouble picking up the threads of the story again, but as soon as I started to read Voice of the Falconer things fell back into place and I felt as if only five days had passed since reading the first book rather than five years!

Voice of the Falconer opens in 1325, eight years after the events described in The Master of Verona. Pietro Alaghieri, son of the late poet Dante, has been living in exile in Ravenna, entrusted with the guardianship of the illegitimate heir of Cangrande della Scala, the ruler of Verona. The child, Cesco, has already been the target of several assassination attempts so it has been decided that he should be raised in secret, with as few people as possible aware of his location. When news of Cangrande’s death begins to circulate, however, Pietro must hurry back to Verona to ensure that the eleven-year-old Cesco receives his rightful inheritance – but as other members of the della Scala family also have their eyes on the throne of Verona, this won’t be an easy task. And now that Cesco’s existence has been revealed, his life could be in danger again…

Cesco, who was only a baby in the previous novel, has developed into a wonderful character – even if you do need to suspend disbelief to accept that a boy of his age could be so intellectually advanced, quick-witted and talented in every way! I loved the little circle of friends and protectors who surround him, too: Morsicato the doctor, Antonia the nun, Tharwat the Moor and, of course, Pietro himself. The characters in the novel are a mixture of those who are fictitious and those who are based on real historical figures, such as Cangrande and the rest of the Scaligeri family. If you don’t know the history, I would recommend not looking things up until you’ve finished the book; if you just let the story carry you along, there will be one or two surprises in store for you as there were for me.

I won’t say too much more about the plot, then, but I do need to mention another very important aspect of the book…the Shakespearean connection. In The Master of Verona we witnessed the beginnings of a feud between Pietro’s two friends, Mariotto Montecchio and Antonio Capulletto. In this book, we meet Mariotto’s young son Romeo and Antonio’s baby daughter Giulietta (Juliet), as well as Giulietta’s cousin Thibault (Tybalt); obviously there is still a long way to go before the tragedy of the star-cross’d lovers is played out, but the foundations of the story have now been laid. I also had fun spotting other characters from Shakespeare’s plays such as Shalakh (Shylock) from The Merchant of Venice and Petruchio and Kate from The Taming of the Shrew, but if you have no knowledge of Shakespeare I don’t think it would be a problem at all – it’s just another of the novel’s many layers.

In case you can’t tell, I enjoyed this book as much as the first one! I am looking forward to visiting Renaissance Italy again soon with the third in the series, Fortune’s Fool…and certainly won’t be waiting five years this time.

Colossus: The Four Emperors by David Blixt

Colossus - The Four Emperors This historical fiction novel by David Blixt is set in Rome in the 1st century AD and follows the story of one ambitious but honourable man, Titus Flavius Sabinus, and his family. This is actually the second in the Colossus series and I haven’t read the first, but fortunately it doesn’t seem to be essential to read them in order. Rather than being a conventional sequel to the first book, Stone and Steel, this one adds another layer to the same story, choosing to focus on some different characters and events.

The Four Emperors begins near the end of Nero’s reign. An unpredictable and eccentric emperor, Nero is capable of acts of great cruelty, and Rome under his rule is a dangerous place to live. When Nero commits suicide to avoid assassination, a power struggle begins with four different claimants becoming emperor in the space of a year. We see the events of this turbulent period from the perspective of Sabinus and the other members of his family, including his elderly father, his two sons, Tertius and Clemens, and a cousin, Domitian. Domitian’s father, Vespasian, has been sent to Judea to put down a Jewish rebellion there, and Sabinus hopes this will be a chance for the family to rise in the world – but when he visits the Oracle of Delphi, he learns that he may be fated to be forgotten by history…

Ancient Rome is not one of my favourite periods for historical fiction, but having enjoyed another of David Blixt’s books (The Master of Verona, set in 14th century Italy) I was happy to try this one. Because I don’t read about the Romans very often, I was fascinated by Blixt’s portrayal of their daily lives, their beliefs and customs. I thought his descriptions of the Oracle’s prophecies and the wildness of the Saturnalia celebrations were particularly vivid. The book also explores the politics of the period, the military campaigns, and how Jews and Christians were treated by the Romans.

Another storyline I found interesting involved a young Greek shepherd boy called Spiros, who was forced to marry Nero because his face reminded Nero of his dead wife Poppaea Sabina’s. This and many other incidents showed how dangerous and uncertain life could be during this period and how everyone had to obey the Emperor’s every whim, however cruel or outlandish. Life under the other rulers who succeeded Nero during the Year of the Four Emperors was no less precarious and unpredictable. Of all the time periods in history, this is not one that I would like to have lived in!

At first I thought it would be hard to remember who all the characters were, as so many of them had very similar names thanks to the complicated Roman naming system, but it was actually a lot easier to understand than I thought it would be. Sometimes when I read fiction set in Ancient Rome I find it difficult to connect with and relate to the characters. I’m not sure why it should really be any different from reading about the Tudor or medieval periods but for some reason, for me, it is. I didn’t have that problem with The Four Emperors; every character came alive on the page. I’ve only really mentioned the men so far, but there were some interesting female characters too, including Vespasian’s mistress, Caenis, and two slaves, Abigail and Perel.

My only problem with this book was that, after such a great start, in the second half of the novel there are some long battle sequences which, although they were well written, I didn’t really enjoy reading. I just don’t find battle scenes very interesting and my attention often starts to wander so much that I struggle to follow what’s happening. That was the case again here and it meant that I didn’t love the book quite as much as I had expected to at the beginning, but this is just due to my personal taste and not the author’s fault. Apart from this, I did enjoy The Four Emperors and although I didn’t feel at any disadvantage as a result of starting with the second book in the series, I would now like to go back and read the first one, Stone and Steel, which is told from a Judean perspective.

The Four Emperors tour

I read The Four Emperors as part of the Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tour. There’s only one more stop on the tour, but if you’d like to read more about the book and the author you can find a list of previous reviews, guest posts and interviews here.

The Master of Verona by David Blixt

The Master of Verona by David Blixt 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!