Monday, June 10, 2013
"The times change, but the nature of men does not."
2.5 out of 5 stars
I really wish I could like this book more than I did. After all, considering the amount of time (ten years!) and effort Michael Ennis put into writing it, to not like seems like a supremely douche-y move on my part. Yet I can't help myself. Now before I break down what it was about the novel which made me dislike it, let me list some things about the book I liked.
First off, those ten years of work clearly shows. This particular period of Italian history hasn't necessarily been brought to life (there's not much focus on anything or anyone beyond that which impacts the plot), but it has been rendered with a depth of detail that creates a passable simulacrum. Part of this might be because all the events used as the backbone of the plot actually occurred; the only fictional bits are the murders and the reactions of the players to those murders. Now, I tend to have mixed feelings about novels which blend real, historically-based figures and/or events with fictional storylines as, frankly, the results can be a mixed-bag, ranging from imaginative to god-awful dreck. It takes real skill to weave a murder-mystery or romance or whatever into an established timeline of events and make that whatever not stick out like a sore thumb. This is a skill Ennis has in spades: He managed to fit a series of gruesome murders seamlessly into an already violent background and make it seem believable that the novel's players, in addition to actions which are on historical record, scampered around the Italian countryside in order to solve those murders. Plus, despite its problems, the story does move along at a nice clip, keeping the reader involved without bogging them down in endless exposition or info dumps.
There's no argument that Ennis is a fine storyteller who is able to create a vivid and compelling tale, and is skilled in the craft of writing. I have no issue with that. If you look at the bare bones of the novel, it's got everything needed to be an engrossing murder-mystery: well-drawn characters (I can say that even while not liking the way they were drawn), action, some gruesome murders, a bit of romance, intrigue, a conspiracy or two, and interesting locations where all this takes place. The problem is, I can't get behind the story Ennis has created or the motivations and characterizations he's given the players, especially after some new research and reading which throws the regurgitated history of the Borgia family right out the window, and (I think) deservedly so. Even without this new information, I still couldn't get behind Ennis's take on Cesare/Valentino's motivations or mental processes, and his depiction of Machiavelli as some sort of love-sick puppy dog who's only motivation seems to be following Damiata around the country so he can crawl back into her bed is grating and a disservice to the real Machiavelli. Even Leonardo da Vinci occasionally came off as more of a caricature: though he's portrayed as eerily prescient about certain technologies and obsessed about discovering the workings of the natural world, which fits in with historical record, there were times when instead he came off more like Doc Brown from the Back to the Future movie franchise. Damiata was the only reasonable, sympathetic voice of the novel and we lose her a third of the way in; the novel starts out with her narrating events in a letter to her son, who is being held captive by Pope Alexander VI until she finds out who murdered Alexander's son, Juan, Duke of Gandia. She ends the letter, believing herself to be near death, and lets Machiavelli pick up the narration, (view spoiler) So my question has to be, why? Why get rid of her as a narrator and use Machiavelli in her place? I understand that Machiavelli is close to both da Vinci and Valentino in the story and, as such, can provide us some insight, I guess, but if it were me, I would've found a way for Damiata to have had a similar closeness in order to keep her as narrator; through her, the story flowed with more action, more intimacy, and more immediacy.
In the end, while I appreciate all the work Ennis put into the novel and can honestly say he's a skilled writer, I just can't agree with the story he put together. Perhaps someone with less knowledge of the Borgias or less interest in a truthful representation of historical figures might, but that's not me.
One minor note: Though others have complained about the Italian sprinkled throughout the book and the lack of translation (which isn't quite accurate as Ennis usually writes the English translation right after the Italian), I didn't have a problem with it. It's not that I speak Italian, and not to be smug, but I took Latin in high school, so it was easy for me to extrapolate what the words meant from their Latin bases.
Read January 6-March 1, 2013
Reviewed for the Amazon Vine Program March 28, 2013