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by Michael Ennis
Century, March 2013
416 pages
12.99 GBP
ISBN: 1780890974

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

This is a thriller that might, in time, come to be put in the same bracket as Umberto Eco's epic masterpiece THE NAME OF THE ROSE. History lecturer Michael Ennis hardly needs to invent a plot. Italy in the first years of the 16th century was one vast morass of plots, mercenary warfare, murders, superstition and sexual excesses during the tenure as Pope of Alexander Borgia. Ennis has based his beautifully written and painstakingly researched work on Machiavelli's published works and diplomatic despatches, so the characters and events described provide a rock solid basis for this fine piece of 'faction'.

At the core of the novel is the corrupt Pope's attempt to discover the murderer of his favourite son, Juan. Suspects include the pope's own brother, Cesare, later and better known as the warrior Duke Valentino. Juan's lover, and mother of his son, the courtesan, Damiata, is sent to the heads of two powerful mercenary families. Seizing his own grandson as a hostage, Alexander forces Damiata to investigate on his behalf and historical 'faction' meets crime fiction. She enlists the aid of two of the greatest minds of that or any other age, the then obscure Florentine diplomat Niccolo Machiavelli and the military engineer, architect and inventor Leonardo da Vinci.

This combination allows Ennis to explore the conflict of faith and fate with superstition and witchcraft, also contrasting Leonardo's emerging scientific approach with Machiavelli's interest in what would much later become psychology.

Together, Damiata, Machiavelli and Leonardo plunge into a labyrinth of diabolical killings, superstition, witchcraft and erotic obsession. To do the author a grave disservice it's a sort of CSI in costume with Leonardo as the scientist and Machiavelli as the profiler.

Ennis clearly has a great feel for life in Italy in the early 1500s. There are times when you can almost smell the stench of the contadini the poor of the countryside, or the expensive oils and perfumes the rich use to disguise their own lack of hygiene. But although cleverly edited, some of the key players in this mystery of true evil, lack depth. The mercenary leaders of the time were major historical figures, worthy perhaps of more attention than they receive and peculiarly two dimensional for all Machiavelli's interest in what drives people. Also, in a time when the slaughter of whole cities, mass rape, torture, prostitution, witchcraft and sexual excess, all sanctioned by the most obscene man ever to have held the office of Pope, were almost a part of everyday life, even a diabolically clever homicidal maniac must take a lower precedence.

Ennis's problem was certainly length and pace and the fact that the larger political picture is so fascinating something had to go. What he has succeeded triumphantly in doing is putting both a believable personal story and a touching and poignant love story on top of strong historical fiction. The book is narrated partly in a letter from Damiata to her son, whom she believes she may never see again, and partly by Machiavelli, who used much of the real story in formulating his great work of governance, THE PRINCE. Machiavelli, throughout his life and a series of love affairs, was fascinated by actresses and courtesans.

This is as good a piece of historical fiction as you are likely to see for a long, long time. It is a beautifully crafted and compelling book that deserves to take its place among the greats, but be warned, you'll need real concentration and a strong stomach to read it!

John Cleal is a former soldier and journalist with an interest in medieval history. He divides his time between France and England.

Reviewed by John Cleal, April 2013

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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