The Peril (The Merchant of Secrets)
Called “Fra Giovanni” in his guise as an ascetic friar, young spy Matteo da Fermo continues his adventures in the second installment of Virginia Cox’s The Merchant of Secrets series. Coerced into the service of the decadent Renaissance pope Julius by a dark secret, Matteo must report on the leader of a strict monastic order while managing an accidental reputation as a miracle worker and hiding from the enemy he calls “Valentino.” Even when he returns to his own country, Matteo’s dark secret continues to separate him from his love. With a mildly comic sidekick in his childhood friend Nello, Matteo works to defeat his now bloated enemy as a kind of sober, sophisticated anti-Don Quixote.
Ranging between France, Spain, and Italy, The Peril moves between cynicism and piety almost effortlessly. Cox carries Matteo’s voice in a deliberately detached and slightly archaic narrative phrasing, full of demonstrative pronouns. It mostly works, but can occasionally be tedious. The Peril should not be read as a stand-alone novel: a reader would miss too much of Matteo’s backstory from the first book in the series, The Subtlest Soul.
But this novel is, by itself, an intense look at the moral compromises of a world where the sacred and the profane were stacked on each other like a Jenga puzzle. Readers should be warned there is somewhat graphic violence. Highly recommended.