Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Book review: The King's Agent, by Donna Russo Morin

The glories of Renaissance Italy spring to life in Donna Russo Morin's latest novel, a historical quest-adventure that combines romantic tension, literary lore, and suspenseful whimsy.

The King's Agent offers something more unusual than the feminine cover implies.  Its male and female leads share the spotlight, and the fantastic plot twists wouldn't be out of place in a Da Vinci Code-style thriller.

Battista della Palla (a historical figure), is the art agent to Fran├žois I of France, which means he steals treasures from Italian palazzos to add to the royal collection. Though a Florentine through and through, Battista is loyal to King Fran├žois and hopes his support will help free his beloved city from Medici tyranny.  In the early 16th century, France and Spain are at war, so the king presents Battista with a new assignment: Find an ancient Greek sculpture which may hold the key to France's victory.

Battista is aided by Lady Aurelia, ward of the Marquess of Mantua, a sheltered noblewoman with a mysterious secret who saves his life during one of his escapades of thievery.  All her life, decisions have been made for her, so Aurelia jumps at the chance to join Battista and his coven - and her thorough knowledge of Dante's Commedia tips the balance in her favor.

They are left a triptych of clues that represent the epic poem's tripartite structure, and their quest is as much literal as allegorical, with booby traps, phantom fire, mysterious rivers of blood, and much more awaiting their clever band.  Aurelia leads the way, but whether their journey will lead to glory or to sin is unclear. 

Morin's lush descriptions of clothing and geography are superb, illustrating both era and place in bountiful, vibrant detail.  I could easily picture each person's outfit - including Aurelia's hair accessories of choice - and how the items were tailored to each aspect of their adventure.

There are many creative images, some clever (Aurelia is not a young woman but a "solitary, well-simmered beauty") and some overdone (doors "gilded with gold"). The novel's first third has a high concentration of alliterative phrases: "The sound of splitting skin and splashing liquid pop, pop, popped behind them, and within seconds a screeching of horses followed," to give just one example.  I confess I was so busy picking out these playful patterns in the prose that I lost the tale's thread. When Battista and Aurelia's stories unite at last, the plot loses most of the linguistic embellishments and finds greater clarity and purpose, culminating in a surprising finish. 

The novel certainly did expand my vocabulary, particularly in Italian, and the author's obvious love for Italian history, art, and culture permeates the text.  A few other Renaissance notables make appearances, and even with Battista's and Aurelia's strong personalities, the divine Michelangelo steals every scene he's in - as he should.  Overall, a rollicking and enlightening read, and a good deal of fun.

The King's Agent was published by Kensington in March at $15.00 / Can $16.95 (trade pb, 411pp, including historical notes and discussion guide).  Visit additional stops on Donna Russo Morin's virtual book tour.


  1. Googling that phrase turns up many, many hits. Though nicely alliterative, it is repetitive, something a copy editor should have caught.

  2. Great review, Sarah. I'm looking forward to reading this one.

  3. Why do so many covers have headless women on them?

  4. Wonderful review! I'm certainly going to pick this one up. I studied in Italy when I was in grad school, and anything that takes me back there, I'll read. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Thanks, Melissa and Katherine. Reading this one made me feel like I was there in person, observing all of the art, clothing, and culture of the era.

    Mary, the headless women thing has become publishing shorthand for women's historical fiction. In this case, it will attract more female readers, but men may be discouraged - which would be unfortunate.