Lent

Written by Jo Walton
Review by Kristen McDermott

Characters who live multiple lives are a trend in novels recently, but few are as historically ambitious as this one. Jo Walton imagines (and re-imagines) the crucial final years of the career of Girolamo Savonarola, the charismatic monk responsible for the “Bonfire of the Vanities” thought to have inspired Martin Luther’s reforms. The novel brings a warm humanity to a historical figure often depicted as the pleasure-hating villain of everything that made the Renaissance appealing – food, fashion, and passion.

In this version, Girolamo is a person of infinite compassion and imagination, embracing asceticism only to remind himself of his love for God. And then he becomes much, much more – but to give details would be to spoil the surprises and delights of this witty thought experiment about the nature of time, free will, and forgiveness. That the title is a pun referring to both worldly and spiritual riches, as well as the liturgical season, is really all one can safely say.

Walton displays her mastery of classical philosophy in the brilliant Thessaly trilogy, a fantasy that imagined the Greek gods creating a real-life version of Plato’s Republic in a time-loop, populated with humans of all nations and eras. The Just City of her earlier trilogy finds a parallel in the City of God that the historical Girolamo attempted to create in the Republic of Florence, “the Athens of the Middle Ages.” And two of Thessaly’s main characters, the real-life philosophers Marcilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, cross over to this narrative to help Girolamo find his way, expanding Walton’s rich, humanist multiverse.

This novel will delight not just fans of medieval and Renaissance history, but anyone who enjoys seeing great ideas come to life through chatty, appealing characters.