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Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Malice of Fortune by Michael Ennis

Anchor, 416 pages, $15.95

Set in Italy in 1502, Michael Ennis re-creates the heyday of Renaissance Italy and plops a mystery into it. The Borgias, Niccolò Machiavelli, and Leonardo da Vinci all have parts to play.

There is always the difficulty when importing real people into a work of fiction that the author is constrained by the best guess of historians about what really happened. Fiction must be woven into fact. Michael Ennis indicates he studied the history of the period extensively, including reading the collected works of Niccolò Machiavelli, perhaps best known for his authorship of The Prince. His research does him proud, as The Malice of Fortune gives a great sense of what it must have been like to live during that period of time and how heavy lay the heads who engaged in political intrigue.

As a character spun mostly from whole cloth, Damiata, a high-class courtesan and lover of Juan Borgia, the son of Pope Alexander VI, narrates about half the book. Niccolò Machiavelli narrates the rest.

At the beginning of the story Machiavelli is a young man who has not yet achieved the notoriety as the author of The Prince or received the accolades as the author of The History of Florence. He is merely a secretary sent from Florence -- that is, he is an observer with no ambassadorial powers -- to the court of Cesare Borgia or Duke Valentino, as he's more frequently known in this book, in Imola. Although he has no authority, Machiavelli is there to prevent Duke Valentino from invading Florence.

Damiata is in Imola because Pope Alexander VI holds her young son hostage. He wants her to find the murderer of his son Juan Borgia, Damiata's lover. The body of a woman was found in Imola. An artifact belonging to Juan was found on her, so surely the killer is now in Imola and still taking lives.

Although they have a shaky start, Damiata and Machiavelli become cohorts, Damiata to regain her son and Machiavelli to defuse an alliance which may endanger Florence. Leonardo da Vinci's science and mathematics provides a new-fangled forensic approach to discovering the bodies of more murdered women, victims of Imola's serial killer, who might also be Juan's killer. Machiavelli uses his own brand of psychology to understand the mind of a killer.

Did the book work? Yes and no. I loved the appearance of Leonardo as the messy, intense, aggravating, and brilliant polymath. Machiavelli's obsession with Damiata, not so much. Ennis' portrayal of Valentino's maneuvering of the condottieri was brilliant. Characters tromping around in blizzards and seafront storms without much ill effect, not so plausible. Overall Ennis succeeds very well at creating the political atmosphere of the times and in using tenets from The Prince to narrative advantage.

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