Sarah Dunant’s latest book gives us an interesting view of the Borgias. First we meet Rodrigo as he successfully pursues election to the empty St. Peter’s chair to become Pope Alexander VI, the first ever Spanish pope in a place where Italian families dominate. He has something to prove. Alexander is cunning, decadent and as land-hungry as any medieval prince – none of which was unusual in popes of those times. Furthermore, he is redeemed by his true piety and his love for his family. Next we meet Lucrezia as she approaches her first wedding at the age of twelve. Far from being a poisoner (perhaps that will come later) she is a sweet girl who is devoted to her family and understands that her duty is to serve them. Which is not always easy to do. Father and brother use her as a marriage tool to further their ambitions, but toward the end Lucrezia begins to emerge as a player in her own right.Then there is Cesar who remains throughout the book an enigmatic and sinister figure. He is his father’s strong right hand (often with a dagger in it.) There are hints that his love for his sister isn’t entirely brotherly. Juan, Alexander’s favorite, is flamboyant, charming and fatally reckless. The third brother, Jofre, and Alexander’s two mistresses, the former and the present, round out the Borgia family.
While working to expand the papacy’s power and influence in Italy and build his own dynasty, Alexander must deal with an invasion by the French. At this time the Italian states were in flux but, happily, the intrigues are not difficult to follow.
This is a book about power and its uses, and about family unity, an irresistible combination.
Ms. Dunant promises us a sequel ‘in a few years’. I hope we don’t have to wait so long for another book of this caliber.