Thursday, December 26, 2013

Blood and Beauty: The Borgias - A Novel by Sarah Dunant

Blood and Beauty: The Borgias – A Novel.  Sarah Dunant.  Random House, Inc. July 2013. 528 pp. hbk. ISBN #: 9781400069297.

Rodrigo Borgia, a noble of Spanish descent, in 1492 wins a majority of votes carefully cultivated among the College of Cardinals, the vote that would mandate the rest of his life be spent as Pope Alexander VI.  Totally besotted with his own children, Juan, Cesare, and Lucrezia, and endeared to his former and present lover, Alexander will spend the remainder of his life manipulating, severing and unifying the bonds of these faithless and troubled children.  One can imagine what it was like to technically not exist as the children of a Pope and yet to live in the opulent lifestyle of what seemed like limitless power of the Borgia clan.

The Borgias have as many enemies as supporters and it’s Alexander’s job to keep his finger on the pulse of the yet to be enacted secret plots.  While this is happening, Juan and Cesare barely tolerate each other and Juan’s amorous escapades are the talk of Rome.  Cesare has received a church position but yearns for the life of a military strategist and campaigner.  Alexander is trying to secure marriage betrothals for his children, all meant to secure the loyalty of both friends and enemies.  For Italy is divided as city-states war with each other, and France has its eye on exploiting the divisions for its own gain.  

A violent death and a serious illness temporarily devastates Alexander and gradually Lucrezia inwardly despises her family for using her as a marital tool and a not very effective one at heading off future conflicts within and outside of Rome.  Revenge must wait while the all-out war Cesare wages for his father occurs.  The outcome is devastating for so many and stifles all doubts of the strength of the Borgia clan, including another female warrior leader formerly respected for her indomitable fierceness and military successes.  Yes, there is blood, beauty, lust, violence, murder, disease and enough verbal altercations to keep the reader rapidly flipping the pages to the very last word. 

Blood and Beauty is a classic work of historical fiction written in the style of an embellished, thrilling account.  The novel also includes vivid descriptions of the gorgeous art and architecture of Rome, especially within Vatican City.  The unique quality of this story lies in changes wrought by Pope Alexander VI and his Borgia family in an extremely troubled time in Italian history.  Rome at this time was a dirty, dangerous city that slowly evolved into the magnificent cultural and sacred icon.  The author presents the immorality of the Borgias without commentary which this reader finds leads to some interesting reflection on how the Catholic Church operated in the 15th and 16th centuries.  The writing is handled so deftly that one almost unconsciously dismisses the “right/wrong” issues because one is so caught up with the machinations of Alexander and Cesare Borgia, not knowing how each scenario will unfold! 

Sarah Dunant is a superb author of historical fiction.  Blood and Beauty is a memorable, phenomenal account of one of the most notable and infamous families in world history.  Highly, highly recommended – and there is more Borgia impact to come which this reviewer eagerly anticipates!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Roan Rose by Juliet Waldron

Roan Rose.  Juliet Waldron. Books We Love, Ltd. October 2013. 283 pp. 1122 KB. ASIN#: B00FKKAN98.

Roan Rose, born into a hard-working, harsh family, is expected to win her father a large dowry (large for their class, that is) but instead faces a different destiny.  She has been trained to be a healer and midwife at the basic skills level and thereby attracts the attention of the Countess of Warwick.  The Countess takes Rose to be a companion and healer to her daughter, Anne Neville, yes, the daughter to the noble Kingmaker.  The time span of Rose’s story takes the reader through the infamous War of the Roses historical period, the conflict covering every facet of the enmity between the Houses of Lancaster and York.  Anne, who worships her father, immediately adores Rose, thus leading to a life-long friendship with Rose, but not one without some period of strife. 

Richard of Gloucester, the brother of King Edward resides with the Neville family, a usual practice ensuring a royal son is properly trained for royal duties.  His closeness to Anne is obvious but perhaps never to be as royalty must marry royalty to insure political benefits for all concerned.  The endless conflicts between King Edward IV’s natural family versus the Woodville/Rivers family versus the Warwick clan, with each family’s numerous supporters and enemies, are the chief focus of this novel. 

However, there are twists and turns in this story unique to this author’s depiction. Ceremonies are described with minute detail as to appearance, decorations, flora and fauna, ceremonies, lists of notable families in attendance with all of their servants, etc. that are fascinating to follow.  Clarence, King Edward’s brother, is portrayed as the most despicable, evil, drunk and sadistic lout one could possibly imagine.  

Another unique quality is the way the author manages to convey Richard’s supposedly cruel transformation upon claiming the crown after Edward’s death, with the additional mystery of the missing Princes in the Tower and the reasons for betrayers to change sides out of sheer greed or survival.  The word “poignant” is almost an understatement throughout the entire novel.

Readers who love natural homeopathy techniques and medicines will love the extensive descriptions of what flowers and herbs are used for specific illnesses or problems in the 15th Century.

Rose, as well as a good friend, is also depicted as a romantic character in quite a surprising way, one not well-developed in other novels (although others write of Richard’s earlier liaison with Kate Haute).  Rose, Anne, Richard also focus on how their religious souls are in jeopardy as so much of what happens in this novel is sinful or heretical, with a touch of the “old ways” or pagan rituals and beliefs.

A surprising amount of the story concerns the cruel suffering Anne Neville experiences as she is shuffled around as a political tool.  The social issue of woman treated poorly is given fair treatment in these characters and the expediency of male will and actions thoroughly depicted and satirized.  Finally, the atmosphere of the times – rich v. poor status the main division – is clearly delineated but in a way that shows the attitudes of contentment and hatred regarding living, work, health and other conditions.

This reviewer absolutely loved this novel and shortage of space here prevents me from sharing more (plus we don’t want spoilers for those not familiar with this famous historical albeit fictional account), but suffice to say Juliet Waldron is one very talented writer and I look forward to reading more of her books.  Highly, highly recommended, delightful historical fiction!