Blood and Beauty by Sarah Dunant – Audiobook Review

Blood and Beauty by Sarah Dunant, narrated by Edoardo Ballerini
Published in audio by Random House Audio, published in print by Random House


From the publisher:

By the end of the fifteenth century, the beauty and creativity of Italy is matched by its brutality and corruption, nowhere more than in Rome and inside the Church. When Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia buys his way into the papacy as Alexander VI, he is defined not just by his wealth or his passionate love for his illegitimate children, but by his blood: He is a Spanish Pope in a city run by Italians. If the Borgias are to triumph, this charismatic, consummate politician with a huge appetite for life, women, and power must use papacy and family – in particular, his eldest son, Cesare, and his daughter Lucrezia – in order to succeed.

Cesare, with a dazzlingly cold intelligence and an even colder soul, is his greatest – though increasingly unstable – weapon. Later immortalized in Machiavelli’s The Prince, he provides the energy and the muscle. Lucrezia, beloved by both men, is the prime dynastic tool. Twelve years old when the novel opens, hers is a journey through three marriages, and from childish innocence to painful experience, from pawn to political player.

Thoughts on the story:

The Borgias rival the Tudors as one of the most dramatic families of the European Renaissance. Dunant approaches the family with a very literary and somewhat reserved bent. In the early pages of Blood and Beauty I worried that I would have a difficult time getting into the book because Dunant keeps the reader very distant from her characters. I need not have worried, though. Dunant tells the story of the Borgias beautifully and with such reality and tension that even knowing the history and where all of their lives were headed, I was completely rapt.

Thoughts on the audio production:

Edoardo Ballerini. You guys. He’s fabulous. Like, he’s just really fabulous. I’ve got a serious audio crush on him now. Every part of his performance is masterful.


Amazing. The book, the audio edition, all of it. Read it or, even better, listen.

For more information, see the publisher’s page.
Source: Publisher

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The Malice of Fortune by Michael Ennis – Book Review

The Malice of Fortune by Michael Ennis
Published by Doubleday Books, an imprint of Random House

Before Cesare was reinvented from a lowly Cardinal to a militarily powerful Duke controlling much of Italy there was a different favorite Borgia son. Pope Alexander VI’s most beloved child was his son Juan, the young man whose unsolved murder rocked the Borgia family. Damiata is the woman whose house Juan was allegedly on his way to when Juan was murdered. An infamous courtesan, Damiata was also Juan’s mistress, and one of the few people who knew his plans for the evening – a fact that has made her one of the top suspects in the conspiracy that killed Juan.

Now, some five years after Juan’s murder, clues are beginning to turn up. Specifically, an item that Juan was wearing when murdered is found with a piece of a dead body in Imola, a city currently occupied by Cesare and the condotierri – mercenary warlords who are also suspected in Juan’s death. The Pope has decided to offer Damiata one chance to clear her name: she must travel to Imola and discover who is killing women since there must be a connection to Juan’s death. While in Imola, Damiata makes the acquaintance of a Florentine diplomat, one Niccolo Machiavelli, and the great artist and engineer Leonardo DaVinci, both of whom have particular skills that will allow them to discover who, exactly, is behind these murders. The fate of much of Italy depends on their results.

The Malice of Fortune is not a The DaVinci Code-style thriller. Ennis took the real players in Italy and Juan’s murder, along with verifiable character traits and whereabouts and created mystery and motivations to explain many of their actions. As a result, The Malice of Fortune reads more like straight historical fiction with suspense and mystery than like an historical thriller, or even an historical mystery. The first quarter or so of the book is narrated by Damiata, the rest by Machiavelli. Machiavelli is probably the best-developed character in the entire book, and The Malice of Fortune essentially becomes about how the republic-minded Machiavelli came to write an homage to the dictatorial Cesare Borgia in The Prince, his best-known work, and thus be associated with despotic actions for the rest of history.

There is a lot going on in The Malice of Fortune and the lesser characters aren’t always very fully developed, but Ennis’s story is fascinating, particularly once you realize he’s really creating a backstory for one of the most famous books of political theory in the Western world. Recommended.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Publisher.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

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Sins of the House of Borgia by Sarah Bower – Book Review

Sins of the House of Borgia by Sarah Bower
Published by Sourcebooks Landmark, an imprint of Sourcebooks

1492 was not a good time to be Jewish in Spain. Esther’s father and brothers left ahead of Esther and her mother in order to set up a life for them in Rome, but eventually King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella formally expelled all Jews from Spain, and Esther and her mother were force to flee to Rome as well. It was a hard journey, and Esther’s mother died along the way, leaving Esther’s voyage in the hands of friends and neighbors. If all of that weren’t bad enough, after Esther’s arrival, her father decides that she will convert to Christianity and become a lady in waiting to Lucrezia Borgia, in order to further ingratiate Esther’s father the moneylender to Pope Alexander VI, nee Rodrigo Borgia. For one or another, Esther becomes very close to Lucrezia – and in some ways even closer to Lecrezia’s infamous brother Cesare, who bestows upon Esther the nickname Violante.

It is a pretty common historical narrative that the Borgia’s brought back the decadence of ancient Rome and added a health dose of poison, that their bed and spouse hopping made the Henry VIII’s marital history look puritanical by comparison. Even so, some of Esther’s early experiences with the Borgias seem to be almost tawdry for tawdry’s sake. Perhaps this is an accurate description of his parties, but it seemed to me that a bit more could have been left to the imagination. Partly because of the graphic nature of some of the early Borgia scenes, Sins of the House of Borgia got off to a slow and rocky start for me. While it eventually engaged me and the pace picked up, I never stopped having an issues with Esther’s intense fascination with and lust for Cesare Borgia. At their very first meeting he embarrassed and degraded her, and never showed any particular preference for her, other than writing her letters seemingly designed to lead her on. Esther was generally a very smart young woman, I found it difficult to believe that she was so incredibly stupid about a man so famously inconstant and syphilitic.

I’m still very interested in books about the Borgias, particularly some set in the years before Rodrigo’s ascension or in the early years of his Papacy, instead of nearing the end of their power as Sins of the House of Borgia was. Someone please write or recommend me a book with a good scene about the battle between Cesare and Catherina Sforza! Sins of the House of Boriga may interest those who like historical fiction that adheres to the tropes of the romance genre better than I do.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Publisher.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.
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The Scarlet Contessa by Jeanne Kalogridis – Book Review

The Scarlet Contessa by Jeanne Kalogridis
Published by St. Martin’s Press, an imprint of Macmillan

Daughter of the rakish Duke of Milan and daughter-in-law (yes, you read that right) of the Pope, Catherina Sforza was not your average 15th century woman. She loved where she wished, schemed for what she wanted, and fought to keep what was hers. She even matched wits and swords with the Borgias. That being said, Caterina Sforza is a strong, admirable woman, but is also perhaps not the most sympathetic character in fiction, particularly when she is younger. Which is why Kalogridis was wise to narrate her story through her (entirely fictional) lady-in-waiting Dea. Dea was actually a particularly compelling character in her own right: consumed with a need to understand the mystery behind and take revenge for her husband’s murder.

I was totally sucked into “The Scarlet Contessa.” I am just starting to read more about the Italian Renaissance, and it is absolutely fascinating. From what I learned in history classes in high school, I thought it was all artists and patrons, some scientific discovery, and maybe a little backlash against scientific discovery from the church. But, oh! the power struggles! And not only amongst the Dukes, Princes, and other leaders of the various cities, but between the secular leaders and the church, and within the church itself! Absolutely fascinating.

This is the second book by Kalogridis I read and reviewed. “The Scarlet Contessa” confirmed what I thought after reading “The Devil’s Queen,” that Kalogridis is a very skilled author. Her particular talent is taking characters who should be unsympathetic due to their actions and making the reader care about what happens to them. Not every author can do that, and many books have left me cold because I could not care less about the protagonist. Kalogridis, though, examines the complex motivations behind some very unsympathetic actions. Not to mention she is a great storyteller, one who knows how to captivate her audience.

Highly recommended.

Buy this book from:
A local independent bookstore via Indiebound

This review was done with a book received from Sarah at St. Martins.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.