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.