It is 1502 and Rodrigo Borgia sits the Papal throne as Alexander VI. He uses this position of power to promote the interests of his illegitimate children: the ruthless military commander Cesare who is on a mission to conquer the Italian city states one by one, and beautiful Lucrezia who is discovering the formidable power of her feminine charms. Into this turbulent moment in history steps Niccolo Machiavelli, a young diplomat who views the key historical players around him with a shrewd eye.
In the Name of the Family picks up where Blood and Beauty, Dunant’s first novel about the Borgias, left off. The story continues with Lucrezia travelling to the home of her soon-to-be third husband, conquering the hearts of diplomats and townspeople along the way, and with Cesare marching remorselessly through Italy, the only idea in his mind that of conquest. Meanwhile Rodrigo continues his machinations behind the scenes, manipulating those around him to get exactly what he wants – though the effort of doing so is starting to catch up with him.
As with Blood and Beauty, Dunant has done a sterling job of crafting believable and three-dimensional characters out of what we know about the Borgias, their actions playing out against a backdrop of immense political upheaval. I particularly enjoyed the snatches of writing and dialogue taken from real letters. Dunant effortlessly blends fiction and historical facts to create an immersive and entertaining read.
Although we are given a broad sweep of history, the reader never loses sight of the characters at the centre of the story. Lucrezia is a beguiling and intriguing young woman far from the merciless harlot she has often been cast as in the past. Rodrigo is half-amusing, half-terrifying, for his love for his family trumps all else – even his religion. But the star here is Cesare, a man so in love with the creation of his own legend that he doesn’t dare slow down, not even to sleep.
The pace of this novel isn’t always thrilling (Dunant does like her details) but the story is engrossing all the same. As Lucrezia begins to discover her own power and the possibilities for manipulation that come with it, and Cesare continues his audacious grab for power, we wonder how long the Borgias can possibly remain at the top before their dynasty starts to fall.
This is a world of two halves: on one hand the brutal and terrifying world of assassins in the night and armies at war, and on the other the shadowy rooms inside palaces where double dealings and secret courtships take place. Both are equally well-written and just as much fun to spend time in.
If I had a complaint about this book, it is that the ending seems rushed. After spending so much time in the company of these characters I would have liked a little more detail about how it all ends.
This is historical fiction at its very best: visceral, engrossing and gripping, In the Name of the Family completes a duology that every historical fiction fan should read.
Many thanks to Virago for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.