Monthly Archives: January 2014

“Blood & Beauty” by Sarah Dunant

“The more outrage the better.  This way people will fear us while we are alive and never – ever – forget us when we are dead.”

Sarah Dunant, Blood & Beauty

It’s a little strange sometimes, the things that can pop into your head while you read.  Frankly, in my case, it can get more than a little strange, but usually the connections at least make sense to me, even if not to anyone else.  This time, I kept hearing snippets of “Razzle Dazzle” from Chicago in my head, over and over again, as I worked my way through Sarah Dunant’s enthralling novel about the Borgias, Blood & Beauty – which is somewhat understandable, albeit in a really twisted way.  My mind is a weird place sometimes.  When it comes to one of history’s most notorious families, however, the parallels are startling: just like lawyer Billy Flynn in the aforementioned musical, one of history’s most notorious families all proved themselves quite adept at using theatrics and sheer audacity (among numerous other tactics) to get away with murder, both literally and figuratively.

Even for their time, the family of Pope Alexander VI (previously known as Rodrigo Borgia) represented something not only unprecedented, but also completely unheard of.  A pope with a mistress (or several) and children was not a new phenomenon, but the very public acknowledgement of a papal family was something else altogether…  and yet (at least initially), the people of Rome loved them for being everything they shouldn’t be.   Part of their appeal was the stark contrast Alexander presented to his predecessors, bolstering his image of health and vitality; the rest was the Borgia mastery of theater, putting on a fantastic show, to conceal the darker inner workings of the family.

What Dunant presents is a humanizing portrait of a family that has been far too often demonized by both their contemporaries and by posterity.  Oh, the Borgias of the novel are every bit as ambitious, cunning, unscrupulous and duplicitous as history and imagination have shown them to be – but this depiction is far more nuanced than the gossip and records of their time would have us believe.  It’s as even-handed an account as one could ask for, deftly picking and choosing among the various tales that have swirled around this notorious family for centuries.  Dunant teases out the personalities of her subjects through extensive research, and basing her narrative choices on that knowledge, spinning a story rather than writing a history.  In the process, she acknowledges all the rumors and legends, all of the contemporary gossip, libel and slander, while at the same time never letting the reader forget that the Borgias were, first and foremost, a family.  An unorthodox, complicated, back-stabbing one, with almost unparalleled dynastic ambitions and a ruthless streak to match, to be perfectly honest, but a family nonetheless.

The best part (in my opinion) of Dunant’s power as a story-teller comes from her ability to conjure up unforgettable images in the mind of her readers, images that convey far more than a mere mental picture.  Scenes and vignettes punctuate the novel, beautifully illustrating the world she is creating – it’s really lovely language, saying a great deal that’s beyond words.  I can’t think of anything that could better convey the atmosphere of the 1492 conclave where Alexander was elected as pope than the contrast between the important negotiations taking place in the latrine, while the official sessions and discussions in the Sistine Chapel were more for show than anything else.  For all the glamour and pageantry of the celebrations for daughter Lucrezia’s third wedding, the real basis of the marriage is seen in the deliberate counting of her dowry, ducat by ducat, men examining each coin for the proper purity and weight, even as the festivities continue.  All through the book, Alexander proves himself to be a doting father, caring deeply for his children, and yet still has no qualms about sacrificing their happiness to further cement the Borgias’ position as one of the major players in Italian politics.  This curious mixture of paternal affection and political scheming is apparent throughout, but nowhere more so than in one of Cesare Borgia’s favorite childhood memories: sitting on his father’s lap after dinner, while Alexander created a map of Italy out of leftovers and cutlery and used it to teach political strategy to his young sons.

Gorgeous vignettes like this punctuate the novel’s slow but steady progression, unfolding deliberately under the unbending and inexorable weight of history.  A student of the past can predict what is going to happen, at any given point, but how and why … not so much.  There’s a lot of mystery between the facts, the uncontested who and what and when of the Borgia story.  Dunant succeeds admirably in filling in the blanks, picking apart a historical record full of libel and exaggeration that’s become inextricably mixed with fact over time, and sifting through over five centuries of rumor, myth and infamy.  The result is spell-binding, a delicious and fascinating plunge into what-might-have-been.


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“The Gods of Gotham” by Lyndsay Faye

In the summer of 1845, following years of passionate political dispute, New York City at long last formed a police department.

The potato, a crop that can be trusted to yield reliable nutrition from barren, limited space, had long been the base staple of the Irish tenant farmer.  In the spring of 1844, the Gardener’s Chronicle and Agricultural Gazette reported that an infestation “belonging to the mould tribe” was laying waste to potato crops.  There was, the Chronicle told its readers, no definite cause or cure.

These twin events would change the city of New York forever.

– Lyndsay Faye, The Gods of Gotham

Words are fun, at least to me – you can’t not enjoy gems like defenestrate and kummerspeck.  I love language, love discovering new phrases, and especially love learning the origins and history of particular words and sayings.  As a result, I was more than a little bit in love with The Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye even before the novel proper began, because of the “Selected Flash Terminology” in the opening pages.  It’s … fascinating, to see how what began as a lower class slang based in part on London Thieves’ Cant gradually seeped into everyday language, and continues to flavor our speech even today, which is more than a little fantastic.  Some of the characters speak nothing else, to varying degrees, making it a delightful challenge to puzzle out their words.

And then, of course, I had to dive headfirst into the plot, and I was absolutely, irrevocably hooked.

Faye brings the world of New York City in 1845 to brilliant, brutal life: sights and sounds and even smells rise off the pages, filling them with vivid, visceral detail.  It’s a city seething with anti-Irish and anti-Catholic sentiment, where pigs wander down Broadway utterly unhindered, politicians resort to every dirty trick in the book to defeat their opponents while ensuring their own victory, the engrained instinct is to run towards fires and not away, and where proposals to create a desperately needed police force are met with screaming protests and violently-expressed fears of a standing army.

This last is starkly evident through the eyes of the narrator, Timothy Wilde, who had absolutely no desire to join the newly-created police force; in no small part because his older brother, Valentine, was instrumental in its foundation, and thinks he’d be perfect for the job.  The relationship between the siblings is fraught with complications, and if Val supports something, Tim will generally oppose it as a matter of principle.  Unfortunately, after a fire destroys both his workplace and his home, devours his life’s savings, and leaves him with a scarred face to boot, he has virtually no other option.

Tim proves surprisingly apt as a copper star, despite his initial reluctance, with a great deal of natural ability.  His burgeoning skills as a detective, however, face an unnerving baptism by fire (for both himself and the new police force) when he encounters a little girl wandering the streets late at night, wearing only a blood-covered nightgown.

Ten-year-old Bird Daly is a kinchin-mab (a child-prostitute), and her sudden appearance prompts a lot of questions on Tim’s part.  Answers, however, are not immediately forthcoming, since it proves nearly impossible to get anything remotely resembling the truth out of little Bird.  She’s an accomplished liar, who trusts no one (with good reason!), and with unnervingly adult speech patterns, as most of her interactions are with grown men.  Eventually, Tim manages to pry a gruesome tale out of the girl, one of murdered children that ultimately leads him to the corpses of over twenty mutilated children, buried in the woods … and the body count is continues to grow.

It’s a complicated case and crime, where no one can be taken for granted and nothing is as it seems.  Tim is given the unenviable task of peeling back layers and prying into secrets that most people would rather keep hidden.  He must navigate some very deep and dangerous waters in the course of his investigation, far more so than even he knows.  There are a lot of players in this game, and a lot of forces beyond any one person’s control – many gods in Gotham, many masters, many different factions.  In the process, he also makes some very bitter enemies, but he is determined to find the truth in spite of the formidable opposition he faces, even at the risk of his career – and quite possibly his life.  Through him, Faye gives us an enthralling, riveting story – it’s seriously dark and twisted, but oh, so satisfying.

Even beyond the exquisite world-building and the wonderfully complex plot, no small part of the novel’s appeal lies in the characters – some of whom are real historical figures, and all heartbreakingly human, mixing virtues and vices in equal proportion.  Among them are Mercy Underhill, the inscrutable and intellectual object of Tim’s unstinting and largely unspoken adoration, and Dr. Palsgrave, notable for specializing in pediatrics, when no doctor of the time specialized in much of anything.  Even the most outrageous (such as Valentine, larger than life in almost every respect, and the army of newsboys Tim uses for information) are tempered, fully fleshed-out even in the most minor respects.  Colorful some of them may be, but never caricatures.

It’s a curious thing, that New York City lagged so far behind other major metropolises in forming a police force.  There was virtually no training for the new copper stars, except for some practice marching in formation, which is rather a terrifying concept.  Their primary role is to prevent crime, mostly by their very presence, to keep an eye on things and arrest those they catch red-handed.  Tim is the exception that proves the rule, a natural-born detective, even before there is a job title as such, one whose task is to solve crime and not just prevent it.  More than anything else, though, Tim seeks to understand the why of a crime, beyond the harsh black-and-white of facts.  Facts by themselves don’t matter, can’t really tell you anything; people and the stories they tell do.  He tells the novel as a human being and not just a policeman, probing deeply into the lives of the people he encounters and the stories they have to tell.  For all that he had to be dragged into his new profession kicking and screaming, by the end he embraces it wholeheartedly, finally feeling that, at long last, he has chosen something in his life.


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