Historical fiction is my genre of choice, and lately I’ve found myself in historical England --- a lot. So it was refreshing to pick up Jeanne Kalogridis’s THE SCARLET CONTESSA and be transplanted to Renaissance Italy, an Italy full of intrigue, cruel individuals and ruthless royals.
Caterina Sforza is the daughter of the Duke of Milan, a man not known for his tempered tastes or actions. The Duke is mean, cruel and superstitious, and the only one he seems to like is his daughter, Caterina. She takes after him in many ways, including his sometimes cruel behavior and love of wonton actions and excesses. In her later years, this inherited personality trait will serve her well. A fiercely brave person, she always manages to get her way, either by direct action or coercion --- a tactic learned from her father. When Caterina is married off to Count Girolamo Riario, a man like her father in ways, she forces her way to Rome to meet him, even though he has warned her off due to reports of plague. Interested more in her husband’s wealth and what he can get her than the actual man, Caterina, knowing exactly how to deal with men, makes herself at home in her new city, anxious for riches and power.
Dea, Caterina’s lady-in-waiting, is the one telling Caterina’s story. She has a true fondness for Caterina and only wants to protect her, which also means putting herself in danger to do just that. She has the ability to read the triumph cards --- what we would think of as modern-day tarot cards --- and Caterina keeps Dea close, always wanting to know what her future holds. Grieving the loss of her husband, Dea finds it difficult to look at the cards, knowing they hold a future neither she nor her lady wants to see emerge.
Unconcerned with making friends in her bid for power, Caterina makes an enemy out of the most powerful family at the time --- the Borgias. Known for their cruelty, willingness to poison enemies, and need for power, they are not the people to cross, yet Caterina feels she can outmaneuver them all. In an act that shows not only her bravery and intelligence but also a rather conniving nature, she refuses to concede power or land, even knowing her small forces will not keep the Borgias at bay very long.
Kalogridis weaves a tale that’s fascinating and full of great characters. While Dea, who is telling the story, is fictional, the other players here aren’t, which is what makes this one so good. Their deeds and insidious actions make these characters jump off the page, and I was thoroughly immersed in the story. I will admit to not knowing much about Italian history and the Italian Renaissance in general, at least no more than I remember from high school and college history classes, but once I put this book down, I wanted to know more. My knowledge of the Italian Renaissance was quenched by several Internet searches that only makes me more astounded by the world created here.
Yes, there are a few rough moments in the book --- for example, the Duke of Milan likes to have women around to rape for fun. And it’s not only the Duke who finds pleasure in these deplorable acts, as the Borgias are in no way innocent characters either. It’s not meant as a turnoff, just a warning. I appreciate the fact that the treacherous and disturbing acts of the real-life people these characters are based upon were not overlooked, making it a richer story for the sordid details.
I’ve read a few of Kalogridis’s novels, and for me she is a great writer of historical fiction. She pulls you into a world full of drama, contemptuous characters and unforgettable settings that I find it hard to close this book. She’s good with the details and the big picture, making a story about an Italian Duke’s daughter a fabulous read.
Reviewed by Amy Gwiazdowski on January 23, 2011