Tuesday, February 17, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: City of God by Cecelia Holland

Disclaimer: I received this book for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

I love Cecelia Holland’s writing. She’s one of my absolute favorite authors. So when I saw City of God offered on Netgalley, I jumped to request it. It’s a re-release of a novel from 1979, published as an ebook by Open Road Integrated Media. I’m thrilled to see that many of Holland’s books are being re-released as ebooks so I can get a hold of some of the ones I’ve missed.

City of God is, as subtitled, A Novel of the Borgias, so the time period and subject matter are inherently fascinating. Holland approaches them obliquely using a fictional protagonist who both witnesses and influences history and in this way she makes a complicated political history accessible. She gives us someone else’s eye to view/judge the demon Borgias.

Nicholas Dawson is the driven, brilliantly efficient secretary to the Florentine ambassador to Rome. He is not from Florence, but was brought up in Pamplona by monks after the death of his English parents. He has no real loyalty to Florence or Spain or any at all to England. Nevertheless, he is very good at his job and works hard to make his ineffectual boss look good, even though it generally means rewriting the ambassador’s dispatches into missives that are more politically astute.

Times are changing. Pope Alexander’s son, Cesare Borgia, the Duke of Valentinois, is bent on conquering all of Italy and is making a reasonable go of it. He’s ruthless, without scruples, and has the support of the pope. Borgia wants Florence. He needs information and knows where to get it. He draws Dawson into his web.

Dawson is not a particularly brave man, but he is ambitious. He is extremely intelligent and he likes to feel powerful. At least, he likes the illusion of power that he gets from proximity to power. Borgia frightens and attracts him. He is particularly excited when Borgia acts on counsel that he provides. Things become more dangerous and potentially more rewarding the higher he rises in Borgia’s circle.

Dawson is, among other things, homosexual. Early on, he becomes involved with a handsome young man of lower social status–a thief and a gambler, who becomes somewhat of an unofficial protector. This relationship anchors and irritates Dawson as it moves beyond the sexual to more of a commitment and then into something that burdens them both. And yet, in the swirl of politics, warfare, murder, and betrayal that engulf Italy and occupy Dawson’s nimble mind, his love for Stefano (had he admitted it) may have been the only "real" thing he had.

Holland does her usual superb job of setting a historical scene with just enough history and politics to immerse you in time and place without bogging down the action. Focus is on the characters. Dawson shines as a brutally self-interested man of the times who has to live with the consequences of his own actions. The characters in The City of God are not people to like or admire, but they populate a realistic and engrossing historical novel.

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