The Malice of Fortune

Written by Michael Ennis
Review by Ilysa Magnus

In the midst of an upsurge in interest in the Borgias, Ennis’s new historical thriller is, at the very least, well-timed, and at best, one of the most intense literary journeys I’ve taken in a long while.

Damiata, a Vatican courtesan, is sent by Pope Alexander to Imola, a remote fortress city, to learn the identity of his son, Juan’s, killer. As surety for her success, the Pope holds Damiata’s son hostage. Imola is a virtual hotbed of cutthroat politics. As Duke Valentino, the Pope’s other son, attempts to reach détente with the condottieri, mercenary warloads who are tearing apart Italy, Damiata believes her own life to be in jeopardy. As the dismembered bodies of women start piling up, Damiata partners with Niccolò Machiavelli, an obscure diplomat from Florence, and the Duke’s military engineer, the brilliant but eccentric Leonardo da Vinci, to find the serial killer, piecing together and dissecting the convoluted riddles left by him – Machiavelli applying his “science of men” and da Vinci his “science of observation.”

Told first in Damiata’s voice, then in Machiavelli’s, the mystery unfolds amidst a backdrop of atmospherics so palpable that I felt like I was participating in this search. To that add a dash of Umberto Eco – from the outset in his narrative, Machiavelli reveals that he has “deeply buried” the “terrifying secret” of these crimes and the pivotal political events that are interwoven into the story in his seminal work, The Prince. Later in his life, Machiavelli apparently made oblique reference to these secrets, revealing the extent of horrific evil of which men are capable.

This dense novel is well worth the effort. These three characters are so well fleshed out, so intensely human, that we can almost hear the wheels turning in their minds. It is at once intelligent, frightening and deeply satisfying – a real tour de force. A must read.