The sequel to Imprimatur, a novel that outraged the Vatican and is still banned in Italy, sees the return of the enigmatic Atto Melani, once a celebrated castrato singer and now a spy in the service of the Sun King. The story is set seventeen years later and Melani’s erstwhile assistant is now a happily married odd jobbing gardener at the magnificent Villa Spada in Rome. The plot is again extraordinarily complex with multiple subplots and minor characters who add flamboyant colour or comic relief – here, a parrot plays a particularly interesting role. Melani is again enmeshed in politics at the highest possible level: dealing with the succession of popes and the Spanish throne. Charles II, King of Spain, is gravely ill, and the Sun King and Kaiser Leopold of Austria are both hotly in pursuit of rich pickings as the Spanish Empire is left without an heir.
Monaldi and Sorti again manage to pull off another tour-de-force of derring do complete with secret languages, religious sects and forgery of state documents. This time, however, the reader is asked to suspend disbelief to a greater extent than before: the introduction teasingly wonders whether ‘this too is perhaps an historical document, perhaps a novel?’ Based on meticulous historical research, the authors have claimed that they, ‘don’t need to invent very much,’ but the plot is nonetheless pure fiction. Much of it centres on Louis XIV’s first love, Maria Mancini, and questions what might have become of Louis XIV – and France – if he had married her. The trouble with the ‘what if’ branch of history is that the ramifications can get a little heavy going, and I sometimes felt that the plot has one too many false trails and blind alleys making the story rather laboured and a little less exciting than the first book.