The Malice of Fortune by Michael Ennis

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The Malice of Fortune by Michael Ennis

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: This historic crime fiction set in the world of Leonardo and Machiavelli is more Umberto Eco than Dan Brown - which is a good thing - but it's a heavy going read and lacking in the characterisation that would lift this compelling story. It's thoroughly researched though.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 416 Date: March 2013
Publisher: Century
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1780890975

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Michael Ennis sets his The Malice of Fortune in Italy in the early part of the 1500s. Ennis is a history lecturer so unsurprisingly, his book is full of evidence of detailed research and understanding of the times. And what fascinating times they were. With the Borgia family dominating both the papacy and several political regions, fighting for power and land, a number of family led mercenary armies, and several great figures who would leave a lasting legacy, notably Leonardo Da Vinci and Niccolò Machiavelli, the latter of whom narrates a very large part of this novel. The real life political wrangling of the times would stretch the imagination of most novelists and Ennis bases his tale on a huge number of real, documented happenings. What he seeks to add to the party is an insight into why and how these events occurred and certainly there are some unexplained gaps in the relationships of the key players. The core story is an attempt to discover the identity of the murderer of the pope's son, Juan Borgia, Duke of Gandia. Candidates range from his brother, Cesare Borgia, Juan's courtesan, Damiata to the heads of various powerful, mercenary families. It's historical fiction meets crime fiction.

Ennis gets to explore a lot of conflicts. From faith and fate versus superstition and witchcraft to the emerging scientific approaches of Leonardo's obsessions with measurement and counting to Machiavelli's interest in what we'd now call psychology. The differences between Leonardo's approach to solving the murder mystery and Machiavelli's offer a particularly intriguing area of exploration. However, while at times the book shows sparks of what it could have been, for several reasons I ended up disappointed in it and found the whole thing to be surprisingly stodgy.

Ennis tells us in the acknowledgements that his original manuscript has been heavily edited, and this may be a factor. What has resulted is a fiction work by what is clearly an academic historian. In some ways that's obviously a strength and it's clear that Ennis has a great feel for the life in Italy in the 1500s but equally this gets in the way of the crime element of the book. It's almost as if it's too well researched. I wanted to lock Ennis in a room without his notes ask tell him to re-tell the story in his own words which I'm sure would have been more interesting as his clear enthusiasm for the period gets stifled here. One example of this is the frequent use of Italian words in italics in the book. However, while the book unusually features a dramatis personae of the major characters, no one has thought to offer a translation of these Italian words so have the time we have to guess what they mean.

The other irritation is the structure of the book. The first part, a little over a third of the book, is narrated by Damiata, supposedly in the form of a letter to her young son who is being held hostage by his grandfather, the pope. The bulk of the book though is narrated by Machiavelli, supposedly some 30 years after the events and after he has written The Prince. I struggled to buy into either of these narrations though. In the first, it's hard to believe that these are the words of a mother to her young son, while more fundamentally in the second case, the level of detail written some 30 years after the event are just ridiculous. I may not be Machiavelli, but I'd struggle to give that much detail about what happened yesterday.

The book features some great historical characters although for all Machiavelli's interest in what drives people and ambition, there is a strange lack of differentiation between the various characters. They all seem to be one in the same and merge into each other in an almost stereotypical way which is a great shame as they are truly fascinating people in their own right. I'm sure Ennis is right that a main everyday challenge for the people close to power was knowing who to trust and who not to trust, but here everyone is unreliable and it becomes repetitive for the reader.

Perhaps the problem is that the larger political picture against which this is set is just so interesting that Ennis's efforts at putting a personal story and in some respects a love story on top just detracts from the real interest.

The result is a stronger historical fiction book than it is a crime fiction book. It's a crime fiction book with the pace of an historical fiction book and historical fiction book with a somewhat unsatisfactory crime element whose ending is all too bland. I'm afraid my first thought on finishing it was 'is that it?' which is a great shame as it has a lot of potential. Ardent historical fiction fans though will appreciate the level of research on display here.

Out grateful thanks to the kind people at Century for sending us this book.

For more on Leonardo, then Leonardo's Legacy: How Da Vinci Reinvented the World by Stefan Klein is highly recommended while for more on Machiavelli, check out Machiavelli: A Life Beyond Ideology by Paul Oppenheimer. Both are non-fiction but their lives were more interesting that most fiction writers can muster.

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