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The Malice of Fortune by Michael Ennis

The Malice of Fortune” is an historical thriller set in Renaissance Italy during the reign of Pope Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia).  Those who are addicted to Showtime’s series on the Borgia family, billed as “the original crime family,” will be fascinated to compare that show with some of the same events as told fictionally through Michael Ennis.

Ennis is an experienced historical researcher. He does his own digging for facts and for how these facts can be woven into a fictional story.  His research for this book consisted of digging into the works of Niccolo Machiavelli, Leonardo da Vinci, and the biographers of the Borgia family, as well as the historical records from the Vatican and major families of the era.  It’s any wonder Ennis ever had time to write such a prodigious work.

Interwoven with what is well-considered historical research is a fascinating story told in two parts from two different perspectives.  The first is Damiata, the courtesan mistress of Juan Borgia, Duke of Gandia, the favored son of Pope Alexander who is murdered in 1497 on his way to see his mistress.  Pope Alexander is tortured with the mystery of who killed his son and five years after the murder he sends Damiata off to Imola where Alexander’s other son, Cesare, known as Duke Valentino, has amassed the Vatican and mercenary forces.  She is to figure out who killed Juan or suffer the loss of her son, Giovanni, who is essentially held prisoner by his grandfather, the Pope.

Damiata and the Pope believe there is a connection between the brutal murders and mutilation of several women in the town of Imola because one of the strega who was murdered was found with an amulet that Juan was known to wear. The Pope additionally suspects that Damiata betrayed Juan and gave his killers information about where he could be found the night of his death.  By cooperating with the investigation Damiata hopes to clear her name and rejoin her son.  Only Juan’s killer could have carried the amulet away and deposited it with another victim.  Women known to be witches, or strega, in and around Imola also had a copy of “The Elements” by Plato that was annotated with the names of people purported to be Juan’s killers, or connected with the killing.  Damiata gets a glance at that book when she encounters the witches before mercenaries take the book away.

The second part of the novel is told from the point of view of Niccolo Machiavelli.  Although there is no historical record of his having had a liaison with Damiata, he was known to be enamored of courtesans of his day and so the story fits quite well that he should strike up a relationship with Damiata while they were both in Imola.  Niccolo was the envoy from Florence attached to the court of Duke Valentino.  When he gets involved with Damiata he also takes up the cause of finding the truth about Juan Borgia’s death, and the deaths of a growing number of women in the town.  They follow Leonardo da Vinci, who at the time was Valentino’s military engineer, as da Vinci and his assistants attempt to make sense of the killings.  They find a pattern in the placement of body parts using geometry to map out the locations of body parts of various victims found scattered around the city.

The Malice of Fortune” is a page-turner.  It is easy to be sucked into the book through several different dimensions.  The mystery is compelling, as is the character development and psychological study of several people including Machiavelli, Valentino, Damiata, and some of the henchmen allied to Valentino.  The relationship between Machiavelli and Damiata, however fictional, is also compelling.  I loved this book and could not put it down until it was done.  Now, many hours later, I am still thinking about the book and its characters and will be for a long time to come.

Liz Nichols

 

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