Summary: Glamorous and predatory, the Borgias became Italy’s most ruthless and powerful family, electrifying and terrorizing their 15th-century Renaissance world.
To this day, Lucrezia Borgia is known as one of history’s most notorious villainesses, accused of incest and luring men to doom with her arsenal of poison.
International bestselling author C.W. Gortner’s new novel delves beyond the myth to depict Lucrezia in her own voice, from her pampered childhood in the palaces of Rome to her ill-fated, scandalous arranged marriages and complex relationship with her adored father and her rival brothers—brutal Juan and enigmatic Cesare.
This is the dramatic, untold story of a papal princess who came of age in an era of savage intrigue and unparalleled splendor, and whose courage led her to overcome the fate imposed on her by her Borgia blood.
While I will not say I have read as many tales about the Borgia as the Tudors, there is a reviving interest for the infamous Papal family. After all, they are bywords for incest, corruption, murder, orgies, and poison (if rumours are to be believed). All the elements as well as the family itself make the perfect ingredients to whip up a heinous fairy tale with a twisted ending.
And plenty of standard Borgia elements made it in the story—the usual violence, passionate relationships between siblings, and the power struggle. Gortnor definitely makes use of the rumours that are widely known in the Borgia myth; while I don’t want to spoil anyone I will say more than one rumour listed above makes it into the book. There are unnecessary gratuitous scenes to hammer the point home that the Borgias are depraved creatures and will corrupt anyone around them. I will caution that there are definitely triggers for abuse, rape, and violence throughout this story. I am slightly disappointed, because I think there are plenty of political wrangling and rivalry that can make the story just as exciting without resorting to the same old lurid rumours that have vilified the Borgia family.
The strongest parts of Gortnor’s writing definitely belong to the fast paced plot and the host of historical figures that he introduces throughout this tale. When all the Borgia family members and company—Lucrezia, Cesare, Rodrigo, Juan, Guilia Farnese, Sancia of Aragon—are first introduced, I find them completely charming if not loveable. They are characters that I am strongly drawn to, as each one of them have their own fears and desires, and I can understand the fascination for the historical personages that has lasted centuries. At their very best they are idols that I will wish to follow, and at their very worst they are like train wrecks that you cannot stare away from. I also love how the majority of the cast quickly devolve into malicious or dangerous individuals due to their ambitions, obviously with the exception of our POV character, Lucrezia. The book covers events from 1492-1501, and Gortnor tries his best to cover as many events as possible in 400 pages. Even at the 70% mark of the book Gortnor is still trying to introduce important characters such as Alfonso of Aragon (Lucrezia’s second husband) and plotlines (their marriage). It is not a dull read by any standard when one considers that all occur during this nine year span—elevation of Borgias to become the Papal family, Lucrezia’s two marriages, Juan’s marriage and eventual demise, Cesare’s initial bid for power and his rise to become the icon that inspired Machiavelli’s work, the French invasion of Italy and the problems in Naples.
In fact, those familiar with history may find it frustrating to have the entire book from Lucrezia’s POV. While she is an important part of the family, her most useful function in the grander scheme of things is that she is the marriageable pawn. Therefore, it is hard for Gortnor to capture the full scope of the nine years when many of the most exciting action (both battles and political) scenes are recapped for Lucrezia by other people. It is also hard for Gortnor to capture the relationships between the various Borgia members as all characters are seen through Lucrezia’s bias. I for one want to know what is Cesare’s or Rodrigo’s internal thought and emotional process as they make various decisions to either embrace Naples, Spain, or France as their allies of the moment. It also makes the sibling rivalry between Juan and Cesare less intense, although Gortnor compensates for this with a (completely) fictional plot point.
However, Lucrezia is an extremely sympathetic female lead. Initially naïve given her status as the Pope’s daughter, she tries to learn from everyone around her to understand her role in the family and in society. And when events do not occur as smoothly as she wishes such as her first marriage, she quickly uses her mind to come up with solutions that will cause her least amount of damage. She eventually understands that it is a game that she has to play, and Lucrezia always try to play the best with the hand that she is dealt with. She definitely transforms into a slightly cynical young woman, and it is an interesting coming of age story.
One other thing that I really enjoyed about this book is all the lushness of all the scenes; Gortnor spares no details as he talks about the rooms, the fashion and the jewels that all the characters possess. It also helps that I have watched the Borgias TV show, and I often substitute images of the show in my head which makes the story that much more fascinating.
Overall it is a decent read for the Borgias, and even a good one for a beginner to start if they want to know more about the Borgia myth in an entertaining manner, but I will say Gortnor did skimp on the historical accuracy for this one and could have delved into the psyche other Borgia members for a richer story.