I am pleased to report that I have an indie book to recommend! I found Virginia Cox’s as an award winner at the Historical Novel Society site and was quite pleased that I fully agreed with the assessment of historical novelist Elizabeth Chadwick, judge of the award, when she said, “The history felt real and right. It was an immersive experience. It was one of those books where I needed to know what happened next and kept having to go back and pick at it - you know like when you have that opened bar of chocolate in the fridge!” (Her full blog post on it is here)
I too found the story an addictive visit to the world of medieval Italy at the time of the Borgias— with all the attendant scheming, stabbing, and poisoning to be rivaled only by the Tudors, or perhaps the heyday of ancient Rome. It’s a time period I know only from my enjoyment of Dorothy Dunnett’s Niccolo series (thus not by any actual history, only via fiction) and it’s not one of my first choices for settings—however a good story makes any setting fun. Cameo appearances by Leonardo da Vinci and Michaelangelo were intriguing, but Cox also managed to weave in Niccolo Machiavelli as a key player in the plot. In fact his words from The Prince underscore the entire novel: “It is necessary for a ruler, if he wishes to survive, to learn how to be not good, . . . “ Certainly the characters in this novel are excellent students of “not good!”
Fictional protagonist Matteo de Fermo is a low-born man surrounded by powerful nobility who have use for him—mostly as a spy. The first person narration gives immediacy to his many predicaments and helps us feel the danger of serving so many dangerous men—and women—all at once. Matteo comes alive for us because his pervasive awareness of his own low status plays counterpoint to the physical beauty and quick mind that pique the interest of everyone he encounters. His star will seem to be rising and then, whoosh, at the whim of one of his many masters he is lying on a hard board in a cold cell crawling with lice. Turn a few more pages and voila, he makes a quick-witted observation, hides a coded note, and now he’s wearing a fancy satin doublet with a sharp dagger in his sleeve once more. Ms. Cox does a wonderful job of building each new adventure on the foundation of the last, letting the tale unravel in a series of twists and turns that are complex without being convoluted. What a fine achievement!
The novel isn’t short and thus I suggest it for a long flight or a rainy weekend—but it’s a wonderfully fun time and the historical details are both precise and delightful. If you like historical adventures, put it on your list to read. I can’t wait to read another by her!