The Ground is Burning
In the autumn of 1502, Cesare Borgia is at the height of his power and notoriety. Leonardo da Vinci works for him as a military engineer. Florence’s ambassador to his court is Niccolo Machiavelli. His favoured mistress is the enigmatic Dorotea Caracciolo, who is not all that she pretends to be. His army commanders, led by Vitelozzo Vitelli, are nervous of his military successes and are plotting his downfall. Time is running out for Cesare, who knows that, like Achilles, if he chooses the path of glory he is destined to die young.
This is a vivacious and accomplished debut. Told in the voices of the five protagonists, it is meticulously researched yet moves at a cracking pace. The voices of Leonardo and Machiavelli are, inevitably, sometimes predictable. Both men left extensive written records of their lives and thoughts, which results in the reader having a sort of tickbox in her head. Ah yes, here is the mechanical bow and the flying cannon, and here Messer Niccolo tells us the end always justifies the means. Cesare Borgia, by contrast, left virtually no written records behind him, and it is his narrative voice which really brings the novel to life. Brutal, witty, paranoid and pathological, he speaks to us in short, explosive sentences, bursting with a life that is continually under threat. When he is on the page, the ground is most certainly burning.
The novel examines big questions about the nature of love and war, art and ambition. It is also a terrific read. Having read most of the fiction inspired by the Borgias, I feel I can say with some assurance that this is the best in years. Highly recommended.