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.

My Commonplace Book: July 2016

A summary of this month’s reading, in words and pictures.

commonplace book
Definition:
noun
a notebook in which quotations, poems, remarks, etc, that catch the owner’s attention are entered

Collins English Dictionary

***

He turned his head to smile at her, apologetically; and his face was haggard in the firelight, so that suddenly she cared nothing for kings and wars, nor bishops nor the soul of man, nor for what Thomas did, only for what Thomas was; and she longed to fling her arms round him and hold him close because he was like a lute that was strung too tight.

The Rider of the White Horse by Rosemary Sutcliff (1959)

***

Princes in the Tower

No banners were raised above the company and they wore no livery, anonymity as well as haste their ally this April morning. Where Watling Street cut its blade-straight course towards the Great Ouse, the last of the sentries who had ridden on ahead to silence any word of their coming joined the company and, together, the horsemen thundered towards the small market town of Stony Stratford and the object of their race: the boy who had become king.

Sons of the Blood by Robyn Young (2016)

***

Nash is a follower of the playwrights and knows their best bons mots by heart, but I am fascinated by the actors themselves. I wonder about the life behind the stage and the precariousness of it. The thought of it gives me a shiver. Perhaps my interest stems from the apprehension that actors, whose calling depends on looks and voices and bodies that cannot last, must confront the same hard laws of life that women do. When the brightness of our beauty dies, we are plunged into the dark.

The Revelations of Carey Ravine by Debra Daley (2016)

***

Lizzie Burns

And is it any different with love? Isn’t love the reverse side of the same medal? To love is to have, but rare does it happen that what we have is what we love. Love buys cheap and seeks to sell at a higher price; our greed is for gain that lies outside our reach. We desire those who don’t desire us in return.

Mrs Engels by Gavin McCrea (2015)

***

Before him lay the well-kept grounds, the clipped rose trees already beginning to put forth their glossy leaves, the panes of the glass-house gleaming like ice in the moonlight, the fountain where the water splashed in silver threads, hollow-eyed termini set between yew trees. The windows in the side of the pleasure house facing Desgrez were shuttered; he crept along, however, most warily; he did not know who was posted in the gardens nor what sentries might be placed about the house and grounds.

The Poisoners by Marjorie Bowen (1936)

***

Gondola

They glided away through the spangled water, and he filled his lungs with the haunting sea air. Other gondolas slipped past with lovers or merrymakers. A delicious languor filled the night, lapping of water, wandering of music. He felt a longing, sweeter than possession, for the indescribable, the unattainable. He would return here someday with her; he would occupy one of these palaces; they would live in terms of color – sapphire and silver – in terms of a casement open on the sea-scented night.

Prince of Foxes by Samuel Shellabarger (1947)

***

“Oh, don’t worry, we’re still appalling know-it-alls. We dig things up, but then we photograph and catalogue, record and document, and as often as not we put things back. It’s not the finds so much as the findings. Not the objects but the stories they tell.”

Sandlands by Rosy Thornton (2016)

***

Magna Carta

Under the shade of the pavilion, he noted a table in readiness, stools around it, and parchment and pens and wax all ready, with clerks and knights waiting. They had at least the grace to stand when he entered and, without speaking, took the stool at the table-head. Before him lay the long charter. He knew it by heart, each clause of it had burned into him with rage while impotently he had listened to these rogues’ demands.

The Devil and King John by Philip Lindsay (1943)

***

Favourite books this month: Prince of Foxes and The Revelations of Carey Ravine.

Classics Spin – The Result

On Friday I mentioned that I was taking part in the latest Classics Spin. The idea of the Spin was to list twenty books from my Classics Club list, number them 1 to 20, and the number announced today (Monday) represents the book I have to read before 1st August 2016.

The number that has been selected by the Classics Club this time is #15, which means the book I’ll be reading is:

Prince of Foxes

Prince of Foxes by Samuel Shellabarger

This is what the book is about:

Prince of Foxes, set in Renaissance Italy, is the fast-paced, suspenseful story of Andrea Orsini, a peasant boy who rises far and becomes a secret agent for the cunning and powerful Cesare Borgia, who entrusts him with the most delicate political, military and romantic missions. It is a classic of American popular fiction. When first published in the mid-twentieth century, it became an instant best-seller and was turned into a hit movie with Orson Welles cast as Borgia and Tyrone Power as Orsini.

One of the things I like about the Classics Club is that each individual member can decide how they want to define a classic. As well as conventional classics, my own list also includes modern classics, ‘forgotten’ classics, and books like this one, which are classic historical fiction. I’m very pleased that the spin has chosen Prince of Foxes for me as I’ve had a copy on my shelf for a long time and have just never managed to get round to reading it. I’ll do my best to read and review it sometime in June or July, but I want to finish Kristin Lavransdatter, my book from the previous spin, first!

Have you read this book? If you took part in the classics spin too, are you happy with your result?