The Kingdom of Light

Written by Giulio Leoni
Review by Elizabeth Hawksley

1240, Florence. In this, the second of the Dante mysteries, the poet finds a galley beached by the river Arno; all the crew are dead. The only clues are a damaged, mechanical device, possibly Arabic, and a note containing the words ‘The Kingdom of Light’, the name of a secret sect devoted to freedom from papal despotism – dangerous with a powerful inquisition around. Later, he’s asked to investigate a murder at the Angel Inn. The victim was one of six people staying there. Who are they? Why are they in Florence? Do they have anything to do with the Kingdom of Light and the mysterious galley?

Leoni is good at getting inside the mindset of another age. Pre-Renaissance Florence is a dangerous and squalid city, riven by warring factions, whose superstitious inhabitants believe in miracles. Science, though still regarded with suspicion by the inquisition, is beginning to open minds.

Unfortunately, the book is something of a chore to read. Too many names begin with B: Brunetto, Bigarelli, Bernardo, Bonatti, Brandano, not to mention Boniface. There are almost as many M’s. I frequently had to check the cast list and the translator’s notes to work out what was happening. I found the translation self-consciously literary which had a ponderous effect on the prose style. Personally, I agree with George Orwell that the best writing never uses a long word where a short one will do and avoids Latinate words if possible in favour of an everyday English equivalent. Whiteside has phrases like the obscene exultation of the flesh (what does that mean?) and uses words like vulpine instead of fox-like or foxy. However, I do understand that a book shot through with hidden quotations from Dante’s The Divine Comedy, is never going to be an easy book to translate.