The Serpent and The Pearl. Kate Quinn. Penguin Group USA. August 6, 2013. 432 pp. pbk. ISBN #: 9780425259467.
Carmelina Mangano, a talented cook, arrives in Rome after a perilous escape from Venice where she is wanted for an extremely serious crime that could wind up in her execution. She proves her culinary skills and persuades her cousin, Marco Santini, another famous cook trained by Carmelina’s father but cursed with the addiction to gambling. Both are hiding secrets that keep them constantly looking over their shoulder and both are living in a town full of violence and shed blood on a nightly basis. Their skill with creating delicious dishes fit for royalty and their ability to cover for each other are both amusing and create a constant tension with the other kitchen staff, employers, and acquaintances and will definitively come to an unpredictable head well into the novel.
Leonello is a dwarf also skilled in gambling. But he is an educated gambler whose goal in winning at the tables is to buy classic books of poetry and plays, mainly the former. He manages to avoid fights with others who hate losing at cards but then his world is turned upside down when a woman friend who was a decent, hard-working woman is found murdered in the most ghastly way. Leonello tracks down the killers and circumstances of his capture evolve into his new position as a protector of a noble family. Later another woman will die in the same manner and it is Leonello’s passion to track down the group responsible for these grisly deaths.
Giulia Farnese believes she is marrying Orsini, a handsome gentle soul but discovers she is a pawn meant to satisfy the desires of the notorious Cardinal Borgia, head of the Cardinals, manipulator of men and wealth, possessor of a killer secret of his own but most of all wanting to woo Giulia into serving as his mistress. Their journey in that direction is both fierce, funny, and tender, that is until upon the death of the Pope, circumstances begin to go awry every which way every character turns. The uniting of these characters who don’t know each other but are directly and indirectly tied to each other in an extraordinary plot makes this high wire reading that is constantly thrilling and passionate!
Kate Quinn knows her history well and crafts books that rivet the reader on every rapidly turned page. Here she’s moved out of her Roman cycle of novels from earlier years and presented a fascinating tale of the famous Borgias sure to intrigue numerous readers. Well-deserved, well-plotted, energetic, vivacious historical fiction about corruption in the Vatican and Rome that this reviewer definitely recommends!