Thursday, October 25, 2012

A look at Michael Ennis's The Malice of Fortune

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.

10 comments:

  1. Excellent review. I looked at this novel when I was in the bookstore tonight but didn't pick it up. It appears I should have! Do you recommend reading Duchess of Milan first?

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    1. The two books aren't connected at all, aside from having a few of the same historical characters - like Leonardo - so you could start with either. I loved Duchess of Milan (and prefer it, actually). Two great heroines, first cousins, who rock all of Italy as they battle for the same title. Some publisher ought to reprint it.

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  2. Sounds like a good read. Might have to check this one out from the library.

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    1. If you give it a try, I'd be interested to hear your thoughts!

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  3. I just can't imagine why you would give this book such a good review. It is not a good book. I tried to read it. I really tried, 250 pages. It was a huge waste of time. I hope these people who think this sounds like a good book read other reviews.

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    1. Sorry it wasn't to your taste! I call books as I see them... always have. I hope readers will respect my opinion even if they don't agree with it.

      Nobody will like every book. My reviews are written to give people a sense of the writing style and appeal so they can decide for themselves. Everyone should check out multiple reviews of a book to get an idea of whether it suits them, so in response to your last comment, I hope they do too.

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  4. I've been curious about this one - sounds like it might be a worthwhile read. I have a copy of Duchess of Milan but haven't read it yet - glad to hear you enjoyed that one as well.

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    1. I found it worthwhile, but it IS dense. I think you'd enjoy Duchess of Milan... and I'd also suggest avoiding Wikipedia (etc) entries about the main characters in advance, just to avoid possible spoilers :)

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  5. I'm about 80 pages in and loving it! Thanks for the review.

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    1. Glad you're enjoying it also!

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