Elegant paints a colorful portrait of Renaissance Venice at the height of its glory in the mid to late 16th century. Bianca, a young Venetian noblewoman, is determined to make her own destiny, and her willful evasion of an arranged marriage results in her exile from Venice to Florence, where she attracts the attention of the reigning duke, a member of the powerful de’ Medici family. Bianca’s only ally in Venice is her cousin Marco, a Venetian senator, a commander in the Venetian fleet, and a leading member of the Venetian secret service. Through the interactions of his characters, Elegant depicts a complex and sometimes brutal world of ever-shifting alliances, where trade, politics, warfare, intrigue, intelligence, beauty, and even love can be used to barter for power.
The characters are never fully fleshed out and are occasionally inconsistent, leaving the reader somewhat detached from their fate. The title character in particular is overshadowed by her cousin Marco, whose multiple roles in the Venetian government and fleet help make his character a bit more developed and well rounded. The strongest character to emerge is that of the city of Venice itself: a city that prized its aristocracy, but elected its Doge; a city that valued shrewd common sense and practicality, but annually reaffirmed its bond with the waters through a ceremonial marriage to the sea.
The author’s greatest talent is his ability to interweave fact and fiction in a manner that is both informative and entertaining. Elegant handles the historical aspects of the story with skill and ease, and has clearly done his research. The action moves briskly between Venice, Florence, Istanbul, and the high seas, giving the reader an overview of the political intrigues of the day and various conflicts with the Turks (including the Battle of Lepanto) as well as a wealth of information about Venetian life and customs.
Although the characters played second fiddle to the setting, this was an enjoyable read for its vivid portrayal of Venice, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in the Serene Republic or the period.