“2.5 stars. Tells the story of Duke Valentino, son of the Pope, and his murderous rampages. Leonardo DaVinci is his engineer.”SalDragski wrote this review Sunday, November 10, 2013. ( reply | permalink ) Was this review helpful? Yes | No
Much has been said and written about, the Borgias. The increased interest in the Borgia family (mostly due to the popularity of Neil Jordan's The Borgias TV series) has led to an increased interest in them. This is no surprise: the story of the Borgias, even when told as bare history, is very interesting. Of course, there is much about that history that is in itself fiction: many contemporary historians are careful about what they accept as truth or rumor about this family, because so much of what was written about them in their own lifetimes, and much of what was written after, is tainted by the slander of their many enemies. Despite this, the Borgias still exert a pull of fascination on almost anyone who comes across them.
This means, of course, that writers are always writing about them, in some way, shape, or form, interpreting and reinterpreting the facts (and some of the rumors) according to how they wish to portray this family. The most recent (and possibly the best) attempt at portraying the Borgias in fiction has to be the novel Blood & Beauty by Sarah Dunant, who does what all good historical novelists must do: bring these historical figures to life as rich, complex characters without sacrificing too much historical accuracy or atmosphere.
But every now and again, another kind of novel crosses my path: the kind that has a premise so enormous, so spectacular, that even though it can potentially (and often does) chuck historical accuracy out the window I cannot help but pick it up and give it a shot. This was the case with The Malice of Fortune by Michael Ennis. I cannot recall how I found out about it, precisely, but as soon as I saw the blurb for it, I was hooked.
Set during Cesare's conquest of the Romagna, the novel is told in two first-person narrations, in four parts. The first fourth is narrated by Damiata, a cortigiana onesta (or "honest courtesan") who was the mistress of Juan Borgia, Cesare's younger brother, Duke of Gandia, Captain-General of the Papal Army, and favorite son of Rodrigo Borgia, otherwise known as Pope Alexander VI. In a desperate bid to find out who killed his son, Rodrigo holds Damiata's son hostage, and sends her off to Imola, currently occupied by a combination of the Papal Army and the armies of the condotierri, the former led by Cesare Borgia (by this time already in possession of the title Duke of Valentinois, and often called Duke Valentino or just Valentino throughout the course of the novel), and the latter led by Vitellozzo Vitelli and his cohorts. She is supposed to investigate a string of gruesome murders Rodrigo believes are related to Juan's murder. The victims are women, all of them cut up into pieces and scattered all around the countryside surrounding the city.
Soon after she arrives there, Damiata meets the narrator of the remaining three-fourths of the novel: Niccolo Machiavelli, a minor Florentine diplomat who has been sent to Imola as a delaying tactic by the Florentine Republic. Florence dreads an alliance between Vitelli and Cesare, fearing that Cesare will allow Vitelli to sack Florence in exchange for his military aid. Machiavelli, the second narrator, is charmed by Damiata's beauty and begins helping her in solving these murders. Along the way they bump into Leonardo da Vinci, serving Cesare as engineer general, and who is also investigating the murders. However, the murderer is infinitely clever, and uncovering his identity is not only difficult, but dangerous.
I suppose it goes without saying that the concept for this novel is extraordinary, especially considering the people involved: Niccolo Machiavelli and Leonardo da Vinci team up with a courtesan (and not just any courtesan, but the more glamorous cortigiana onesta, whom I first read about in Dunant's In the Company of the Courtesan) to catch a serial killer? The idea is incredibly appealing, and is primarily the reason why I decided to pick up this novel in the first place. Unfortunately, through the premise is exceedingly interesting, the novel doesn't manage to follow through on that initial hook.
What makes reading a mystery - any mystery - fun is the game the reader plays with the writer, trying to predict what will happen next based on clues the writer has left in the text. The reader does not follow the crime-solvers so much as play the game alongside them. The Malice of Fortune does not function in this manner at all. Instead, Ennis throws a red herring so large it's hard to mistake it as anything but a red herring, though if one is willing to be convinced (as I was) that it is not a red herring then one eventually figures out who the killer is just past the novel's halfway point. This means the reader is left with almost half a book's worth of story wherein all he or she can do, having solved the mystery ahead of even the characters, is sit back and watch aforementioned characters bungle their way through the case until, finally, they find out what the reader has known all along.
Now, such a thing is, in my opinion, somewhat tolerable, as long as the characters are such that even when they are attempting to solve a puzzle the reader has already solved ahead of them, they are still interesting. And really, given the character lineup for this novel, The Malice of Fortune ought to have been able to salvage itself: Machiavelli, Cesare Borgia, and Leonardo were and are still very interesting people, and the condotierri are, too, in their own way. But that is not what happens - in fact, the most interesting character is the one character who is truly fictional: Damiata. Leonardo's characterization is a bit off, but given how small a role he plays in this novel (despite what the book's blurb may imply), his characterization is something I thought I could let slide.
Machiavelli's characterization, however, is not something I can let go of so easily. I understand the tendency for narration to ramble when one is telling a story in the first-person perspective, but Machiavelli's narration of three-fourths of the novel is so saturated with his lovesick musings over Damiata that it sets my teeth on edge - especially when the idea that Damiata and Machiavelli are soulmates is introduced to explain their near-instant attraction to each other. Now, I have nothing against romance in a novel, but this is a bit much. I was expecting something harder, something more intense in terms of crime-solving - indeed, I was rather hoping that the trio of Damiata, Machiavelli and Leonardo would be the Renaissance equivalent of the team from the show Criminal Minds. I was rather imagining they would be better, actually. As it stands, this novel would be a lot shorter - and a lot tighter - if the love story had been trimmed (and by this I mean retained, but given far less emphasis) in favor of some actual crime-solving. I would especially have loved for Leonardo to have been given a larger role, especially since he is supposed to be acting as the prototype forensic specialist here.
As for the choice of serial killer, I have to say I'm not entirely surprised, though I am left rather dissatisfied by the explanation. I will admit that I am intrigued by the idea of Cesare Borgia as a psychopath, and I have seen some novels that touch upon the concept (Sara Poole's Poison is a good example) but do not explore it further. When I figured out that Cesare was the serial killer, I was hoping for an exploration of his psychopathy, hoping that it would be something interesting and worth the slog through Machiavelli's narration. When I'd figured it out, I thought that it was somewhat interesting, but almost not worth wading through the morass of Machiavell's thoughts to get there. I was just glad to finally find out what was going on in his brain, mostly.
Overall, The Malice of Fortune has an almost mind-blowing premise, but the rest of the novel is unable to deliver on it. If one is expecting a historical mystery along the lines of The Silence of the Lambs, or at least Criminal Minds, then one is better off looking elsewhere, because this is not it, despite what the blurb may promise. It has a surprisingly squishy center that, while not entirely unwelcome, was not handled well enough, to the point that the reader has no choice but to wade through almost sickeningly-sweet musings to get any crime-solving done. If one is willing to put up with this, they may get to the ending and at least find some sort of resolution to the central mystery, but others may find this isn't worth the trouble - and they might be right.”
“This was a very unusual book to read as it was a fictional story based on actual people who were in/lived in the locations in this story as well the actual time period. Yet, I felt it was very well-written. However, this was accomplished with the help of other people as the author mentions in his comments at the end of the story. This story paints an unusual picture of Leonardo da Vinci-much like the frazzled professor in "Back to the Future" movies. It is excellent in it's protrayal of history and how history is not determined by the well known historical figures we only hear/read about. It is also very much determined by the actions of many ordinary unknown people.
The only disagreeable element to this story, for me, was the constant dark and sinister atmosphere all throughout the story. But, that could very well be what life was really like for these people protrayed in the story at these times and places. And, if so, what we learn in traditional studies of Italy and these people doesn't even really tell us anything. It is only in the determined and thorough study of documents, etc. as done my this author that can really tell us what we should know.”
“Much like the Tudors, the Borgias have been overdone in recent releases of historical fiction. However, The Malice of Fortune provides a new perspective by creatively using the well-known history and incorporating it into a mystery/murder plot. By using lesser known players in the Borgia game, author Michael Ennis brings a fresh twist to a popular scheme. You certainly don't have to know the Borgia family history to read and enjoy the book, but for those readers who are familiar, you'll get more than a repeat telling. I've read several Borgia books and was pleased that I knew enough to add to my base knowledge, but wasn't bored or forced to re-read loads of already much published facts about the events. I did not need pages of background, and I think the way this book is set up, no one really would. However, some key information about the 'players' is listed in the front of the book, which is a helpful reference, but I don't think it is too difficult to keep up with the historical timeline or characters.
For those readers who are thinking about expanding into historical fiction, this is a good one to start with because it is more palatable than most. Without upsetting the academic critics, this novel harmonizes mystery, intrigue, murder and history without becoming dry as day old toast. It's a bit of a chunker due to the packed content, but despite the average page count, The Malice of Fortune is an attention-span friendly book especially for this genre. Ennis effectively manages to maintain a brilliant balance between intellectual fiction and entertainment, which will widen the general appeal and audience. Need a quick pitch-line to help you make up your mind? Okay, here it 'tis! A well-crafted, pre-packaged paced Three Musketeers meets The Man in the Iron Mask for the European bound traveler. A tad heavy for the beach and shorter trip, but good for a cabin getaway or longer flight. ”
“First of all, I am not an expert on Renaissance Italy or the Borgias. However, this book seemed well-researched to me. I read Niccolo Machiavelli's "The Prince" years ago so I did have some parallels to make during the story. I liked the plotlines that followed Duke Valentino's rise to power. Loyalties were changed and good guys became bad guys, etc. This seemed real to the time period for me. I liked the ending and the inspiration for the story. The only thing that kept it from being a 5 star book for me was the fact that 1/4 of the book was written from one viewpoint and 3/4 was written from another. The author did not make the purpose for this method clear to me. However, this was an unedited copy that I won on goodreads so the author might have changed this. If not, it was not so distracting that I couldn't enjoy the story anyway.”jguidry wrote this review Wednesday, January 9, 2013. ( reply | permalink ) Was this review helpful? Yes | No
“Imagine a serial killer loose in Renaissance Italy - imagine a trio of intrepid crime-fighters composed of Niccolo Macciavelli, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Juan Borgia's mistress hot on his trail - not a bad concept and Michael Ennis pulls it off fairly well. Good plot, flows fairly well, my only gripe was that Ennis has somewhat of an agenda - he tries to paint Macciavelli in a favorable light, not the schemer that most readers picture him - for all I know he could have a point, but I think he tries to hard and that's this novel's minor flaw, Macciavelli comes off a little bit too soft, too love smitten. I would have liked to have him portrayed as a harder man, more clever by half. Also, the lantguage is pretentious - though this was a pretentious era. But in the end, The Malice of Fortune is a good historical mystery - well-recommended if you like the genre. If you don't, maybe not so much.”Michael Bigham wrote this review Monday, November 19, 2012. ( reply | permalink ) Was this review helpful? Yes | No
“ This is basically a murder mystery set in 1502 during the Itallian Rennaisance. Fascinating in some respects, especially when you realize all the characters and event are factual. It was pretty gruesome, and a little wordy, but it sure did peak my interest in that time period.
“Didn't like it”Jan wrote this review Monday, October 22, 2012. ( reply | permalink ) Was this review helpful? Yes | No
“A brilliantly conceived stew of murder, mystery and conniving.
Michael Ennis has woven a complex plot featuring some of history’s most intriguing characters in one of the more interesting periods of times and given them a complex puzzle to solve.
Ennis transports us to Renaissance Italy shortly after the murder of Juan, Duke of Gandia, favorite son of the manipulative Pope Alexander VI. Receiving an important clue, the pontiff holds Giovanni, the child of Juan and his mistress, Damiata, hostage. Though he suspects her of complicity in the murder, the pontiff sends Damiata on a mission to Imola in the northernmost of the Papal States where she is ordered to interpret the clue and identify the culprit.
Damiata meets Niccolo Machiavelli, who is on a diplomatic mission to the city, and Leonardo da Vinci. They form an unusual partnership and are thrown into a web of deceit and danger as more grisly murders occur. The host of suspects ranges from Valentino, brother of Juan, to members of some of Italy’s most powerful families. As they fall in love, Machiavelli even finds himself distrusting Damiata.
Machiavelli’s pioneering psychological profiling is contrasted with da Vinci’s scientific method of deduction as the two form an uneasy friendship and the bodies pile up.
This is historical fiction at its best. It may well be my favorite read this year.