In my last review, of Margaret George’s The Confessions of Young Nero, I talked about how I love it when writers take unpopular historical characters and tell the story from their point of view. Sarah Dunant did this beautifully with the Borgias in her 2013 novel Blood and Beauty. Here she continues the story from the time of Lucrezia’s marriage to Alfonso d’Este, up till Pope Alexander’s death, which spelled the ruin of Cesare Borgia’s plans to rule most of Italy. In addition to Cesare, Lucrezia, and the Pope, Dunant has added a fourth viewpoint character here: Florentine diplomat Niccolo Macchiavelli, who is fascinated by Cesare Borgia and will eventually immortalize him in his book The Prince.
The end of the story (concluding with a “ten years later” epilogue that recounts what happens to Cesare and Lucrezia in the decade after their father’s death) is as satisfying as the first volume was, and the much-maligned Borgias step out of history and into fiction as fully-fleshed-out, real people — real people who, for the most part, did terrible things (not Lucrezia so much with the terrible things) — but had reasons that made sense to them for doing so. The unfolding story of Lucrezia’s marriage to Alfonso d’Este was my favourite part of this book, and ends with a wonderful scene when Lucrezia learns of her beloved father’s death. Renaissance Italy with all its blood and beauty comes alive in these two novels; seldom have I seen historical fiction written better than this.