By the end of the fifteenth century, the beauty and creativity of Italy is matched by its brutality and corruption, nowhere more than in Rome and inside the Church. When Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia buys his way into the papacy as Alexander VI, he is defined not just by his wealth or his passionate love for his illegitimate children, but by his blood: He is a Spanish Pope in a city run by Italians. If the Borgias are to triumph, this charismatic, consummate politician with a huge appetite for life, women, and power must use papacy and family—in particular, his eldest son, Cesare, and his daughter Lucrezia—in order to succeed. Cesare, with a dazzlingly cold intelligence and an even colder soul, is his greatest—though increasingly unstable—weapon.

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Shelves: historical-fiction , kindle , , italy , early-modern Eh. But I feel like this book fails as a work of fiction. That same historical research gets in the way of story, and large swathes of the book read as the straight listing of historical events.

None of the characters come off the page with any real vibrancy, Eh. The Borgia name instantly evokes images of glorious wealth and even more glorious power, corruption, poison, and incest.

So we might approach this current book believing it to be a significant departure. In addition to climbing on a new bandwagon by fictionalizing famous real-life leaders, her canvas has broadened. It encompasses the names many readers know well, first and foremost the ruthlessly ambitious Spanish-born Rodrigo Borgia Pope Alexander VI , patriarch not only to his beloved illegitimate children but to Catholic believers worldwide.

But looking beyond them, it also presents an overarching portrait of the European political scene, including the changing alliances and deadly jockeying for supremacy among Rome, Naples, Milan, France, and Spain.

This is the grand sweep of history, moving from the epic to the personal and back. As Alexander uses his progeny as pawns to further his dynastic goals, they clash with the rulers of other Italian city-states and with one another. Their interactions are what push the plot forward. He has a lot of on-page time, with not much change to his personality. His presence gets somewhat wearing after a while, but the conclusion proves he has some surprises up his sleeve. The novel uses a true omniscient viewpoint, a technique difficult to master — and for the most part it succeeds.

There are times, though, when she draws far back from the main plotlines to speak to readers about the historical context. While these informative segments are narrated with flair and drama, they break up the reading experience.

At these times, the story feels less a character-driven work than a history-driven one. Emerging gradually from amidst the multiple story strands is a shining thread of feminine empowerment.


In the Name of the Family: Sarah Dunant

Violence, predictably, sits in the hands of her dangerous brother Cesare who prowls around the borders of their state, ears pricked for dissent or weakness. And, while this remarkable family strengthens their grip on Italy, a young diplomat in the Florentine Second Chancery follows their progress with quiet admiration. Of course, the only thing more likely to excite me than a novel purely about the Borgias is one which also features Machiavelli. Dunant has clearly not only read his works, but feels affection for this small, quiet, improbably idealistic man, whose forthright political sentiments sat so oddly alongside a robust bawdy humour. For Machiavelli may not have the vigour necessary to take cities, but he has a foresight that Cesare himself lacks, for all his brilliance. Cesare becomes more a force of nature than a man, slivering off his own humanity as he hones himself closer to an essence of subjugation and revenge. Shadowed by his scarred lieutenant Michelotto, he has forgotten how to love anyone except his sister, and his only true pleasure now is in killing his enemies and outmaneuvering those foolish enough to be his rivals.


Poison, Incest, Intrigue

By Liesl Schillinger July 5, On June 29 in the jubilee year of , lightning made a direct hit on Vatican City, striking the roof directly above the corrupt, scheming Spanish-born Pope Alexander VI — better known in our time as Rodrigo Borgia — while he sat on his majestic throne. First: the Borgia pope survived. And second: lightning also made a direct hit this year on the dome of St. Sometimes a lightning bolt is just a lightning bolt.

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