I saw this one was coming out and then had to shut my eyes and look away. Given we suddenly found we needed a new roof in June, costing £20,000, I’d no business buying new books – especially considering the state of my teetering TBR pile. Until Himself realised it was out and bought it for me. No wonder he’s a keeper…
BLURB: Young Girolamo’s life is a series of miracles. It’s a miracle that he can see demons, plain as day, and that he can cast them out with the force of his will. It’s a miracle that he’s friends with Pico della Mirandola, the Count of Concordia. It’s a miracle that when Girolamo visits the deathbed of Lorenzo “the Magnificent,” the dying Medici is wreathed in celestial light, a surprise to everyone, Lorenzo included. It’s a miracle that when Charles VIII of France invades northern Italy, Girolamo meets him in the field, and convinces him to not only spare Florence but also protect it. It’s a miracle than whenever Girolamo preaches, crowds swoon. It’s a miracle that, despite the Pope’s determination to bring young Girolamo to heel, he’s still on the loose… and, now, running Florence in all but name.
That’s only the beginning. Because Girolamo Savanarola is not who—or what—he thinks he is. He will discover the truth about himself at the most startling possible time.
I’ve knocked off the last line of the blurb, which inexplicably saw fit to give away the big plot twist that occurs about a quarter of the way through this compelling book, that suddenly changes the whole dynamic.
Anyone who has spent time here will know my views on Jo Walton’s writing – she’s a genius, possibly the greatest SFF writer of her generation. She is also difficult to put into any kind of pigeonhole, because the only thing I can safely say is that the next writing project she embarks upon will be completely different to its predecessor. And I’m delighted she has found a home with Tor.com who clearly appreciate her mighty talent and don’t seem to mind her lack of ‘author branding’.
So after her wonderful exploration of Plato’s Republic, in her Thessaly trilogy – see my review of The Just City; her reimagining of Victorian capitalism using dragons as her protagonists in Tooth and Claw; her award-winning evocation of an upbringing in a boarding school after losing a horrific duel in the remarkable book, Among Others; her glorious version of the Arthurian legend through her dauntless female knight in her Tiri Tanagiri duology – see my review of The King’s Peace; and her exploration of personal courage in the face of overwhelming odds in her Small Change trilogy examining an alternative history where Nazi Germany prevails against the UK – see my review of Farthing – I was intrigued to discover what Lent would offer in the way of Walton wonder.
It is the examination of the final years of Girolamo Savanarola, an extraordinary critic of the corrupt practices of the Catholic Church during the height of the Renaissance in Florence. He was a charismatic leader of an increasingly vocal faction who wanted the Church to change its ways, well known for the famous Bonfire of the Vanities. Walton’s unfussy prose painted this period, full of delightful details, with her customary vividness, which I enjoyed. And then the plot twist happened. I didn’t see it coming, so dropped my precious Kindle and said something equating to, ‘Goodness me, what a surprise!’ and couldn’t put the book down until I fell asleep with it in my arms.
At a stroke this book, vividly depicting character at a fascinating stage in Italian history, turned into something else – something more visceral and poignant. One of the hardest things for modern historians to capture is the desperate importance that religion played in the lives of our ancestors. Many fiction writers don’t even attempt it, while the better ones manage to give us a taste of the stakes, where Purgatory and Hell waited for the foolish, unwary and sinful with everlasting agony. Walton takes us right inside that dread and vividly recreates those terrors for us.
This isn’t an action-filled, foot-to-the-floor adventure, but if you enjoy being taken to a different time and place, where the rules are brutally different, then give this one a go. And whatever you do, don’t give up until you get to that plot twist…
Highly recommended. This is my book of the year, so far.