In Paperback: The Malice of Fortune
The Malice of Fortune, the third historical novel from Michael Ennis (after The Duchess of Milan and Byzantium, both very much worth the time and attention required to find and read them), is now issued in an attractive paperback from Anchor, and the book’s premise is mighty attractive too: take two of the Italian Renaissance’s most famous names – Niccolo Machiavelli and Leonardo Da Vinci – and put them in the same book, solving an ingenious series of crimes.
Such is the rough setting of The Malice of Fortune, which opens in the year 1502, when an intelligent and experienced courtesan named Damiata is blackmailed by Rodrigo Borgia (i.e. Pope Alexander VI) into investigating the murder of Rodrigo’s beloved son (and the father of Damiata’s child) Juan. This task brings her into an uneasy working relationship with Juan’s famous brother Cesare Borgia, known throughout Italy by his nickname “Valentino”:
Contrary to his brother Juan, Valentino displayed a preference for sober attire, the tight collar of his black velvet jacket exposing only a thin band of white shirt. The candles glazed his milky complexion; his auburn hair fell straight to his shoulders, framing a lean, saintly face that God had set upon a wrestler’s neck. His mustache and sparse beard were closely groomed, so that the latter more resembled rust upon his jaw – which was as solid as iron plate. However, many of Valentino’s most striking features were feminine, the soft pendant of his lower lip and a nose so finely sculpted that a woman would envy it.
It also tangles her fate with that of Florentine civil servant Machiavelli, and the two of them soon find themselves confronting the most famous maestro in all Italy, Leonardo, and wondering just how much he knows about the mysterious death and butchering of a woman who may or may not be connected with Juan’s murder. As Machiavelli puts it, “There is something in all this that only the maestro and this murderer know.”
Ennis is a slow-working, meticulous craftsman, and the historical fiction he produces is – in every pleasant way – a throwback to the far more careful, immersive days of Jean Plaidy and Irving Stone. His research is exhaustive – Leonardo and Machiavelli really were in the same town at the same time, and all the political and paramilitary details in the background are spot-on – but not exhausting; his characters are revealed in deft strokes (he tries hard to even out the emphasis between his three investigators, but his Machiavelli steals the show, a remarkably, thankfully humanized version of the calculating lizard most people think of as the author of The Prince), and The Malice of Fortune has a more stripped-down and effective plot-engine than either of its predecessors. This is a book to be savored.