Twenty years have passed since publication of Duchess of Milan, Michael Ennis’s spectacular Renaissance epic, so the appearance of his new novel is good cause to celebrate. The Malice of Fortune takes place in Italy in 1502, a few years after most events from the earlier book, and exhibits the same glorious ambience, deadly power politics, sharply rendered historical characters, and dark sensuality.
However, this novel is a different type of creature: a complex intellectual thriller with an even more sinister backdrop.
Damiata, a courtesan of Rome, is a heroine worth rooting for. Although she is as fierce as Isabella of Aragon and Beatrice d'Este from Duchess, she lacks their sphere of influence, status, and (yes) selfishness. Her efforts are focused wholly on her young son.
Five-year-old Giovanni is taken hostage by Pope Alexander VI, aka Rodrigo Borgia, to assure Damiata’s compliance. Borgia suspects her of inciting the murder of her former lover, the pope's son Juan – Giovanni's father – and sends her north to Imola to exonerate herself, if she can. The amulet Juan was wearing when he was killed was found in the possession of a dead woman there.
Imola is controlled by Cesare Borgia, Duke of Valentinois, Juan’s enigmatic brother, who is best known by the cool nickname "Valentino." Upon her arrival, Damiata finds a land in turmoil as Valentino and the treacherous mercenaries known as condottieri jockey for power. Even more dangerously for Damiata, a serial killer is depositing the results of his crimes in various locales around the city.
Damiata finds help from Niccolò Machiavelli, a minor Florentine diplomat and secretary to the Ten of War, and the great Leonardo da Vinci, Valentino’s chief military engineer. In this revitalized Italy struggling to break free from long-held superstitions, there are two ways by which to recognize a murderer: by his corrupt nature and by the evidence he leaves behind. “If we are to defeat Fortune, Secretary,” Valentino advises Niccolò, “we must anticipate events.” Between Niccolò’s forensic profiling (he studies ancient despots and psychopaths for clues to their character) and Leonardo’s brilliant scientific acumen and dissection experiments, they have both methods covered.
The Malice of Fortune doesn’t unfold like a typical murder mystery, with these two famous Renaissance men nosing into horrific happenings like traditional amateur detectives might. Ennis plays too close to real-life history for that. His crafty puzzle respects his characters' personalities and is carefully slotted within actual recorded events. The body parts recovered in and around Imola appear in a pattern perfect for a mind like Leonardo’s to decipher, and which, combined with the crime’s grisliness, indicates that a truly cunning form of evil is at work. The killer not only incorporates Leonardo’s methodology but taunts them with it.
In 1502, Machiavelli’s writing of The Prince was still 11 years in his future; he appears here not as a seasoned political theorist but as a younger man still earning his clout. Niccolò picks up the narrative when Damiata’s account wraps up, giving readers an inside glimpse of his reasoning as well as events that, in this fictional version, led to the observations in his masterwork.
In the beginning, the plot feels somewhat imbalanced – gorgeous descriptions, but too little action – but over time, as the solution falls into place, the suspense grows and the pages turn more swiftly. It also has a fine sense of the dramatic that feels right for the era. Dense, erudite, and steeped in the fraught power struggles and brainy pursuits of the Italian Renaissance, Malice doesn't respond well to a tentative approach. Fortune favors the bold, so grant it your complete attention and watch it repay you in full.
The Malice of Fortune was published by Doubleday in September at $26.95 (hb, 396pp, including a six-page author's note). The Canadian publisher is McClelland & Stewart (hb, $29.99). Read Ennis's fascinating article in the National Post about its road to success, and the role that a good editor can play in book publishing.