How to get me to read your book step one: put a review on the cover from the New York Times comparing it to Wolf Hall.
How to get me to read your book step two: put it in a Waterstones two for one offer.
This is essentially how I found myself reading Sarah Dunant’s Blood and Beauty this month. The book tells the story of the Borgias - focussing on Rodrigo, Cesare and Lucrezia - over a pretty eventful few years. The story starts with patriarch Rodrigo scheming his way to becoming Pope and tells the story of everything that the family do to preserve and increase their own power and wealth. This includes six tactical marriages (three to Lucrezia), the fathering of four children (half by the Pope), several murders (including the eldest Borgia son, Juan), a bloody war on the Italian states north of Rome waged by Cesare and more political scheming than you can shake a stick at. It’s certainly not an uneventful book.
It’s already easy to see why the book could be compared to Wolf Hall: broadly similar historical period, similar themes, even a similar plot in some ways. But the way both books treat their central figures that really makes the comparison stick. Wolf Hall is of course famous for it’s ‘rehabilitation’ of Thomas Cromwell as a well meaning, family orientated, loyal lieutenant rather than the brutal bully which he is more often portrayed as. In the same way, Blood and Beauty offers a much more rounded and less hysterical portrayal of the Borgias than they usually receive. Lucrezia in particular is a much more human character than usual, though admittedly the book only deals with the early part of her life.
The book definitely benefits from this. I have read some Borgia-based fiction before and, basically, it was just porn and people getting stabbed with very little regard for anything resembling a plot. Not really what I’m looking for in my historical fiction, y’know? Blood and Beauty gives an actual, complete story about actual, complete people and gives them believable motives for what they’re doing, even if they’re motives and actions which are difficult to defend. The characterisation is great throughout.
It’s generally well written too. It’s engaging, pacy and really readable. The 500-odd pages fly by so before you know it you’re half way through. I can’t remember the last time I read a book so fast. That’s not to say it’s perfect though and the comparison to Wolf Hall certainly doesn’t stretch as far as the quality of the writing (but then very few books do). There are times when Dunant’s writing style - third person but clearly representing the viewpoint of a specific character - becomes a bit muddled and on a number of occasions I had to read back to work out who the ‘he’ or ‘she’ she was referring to was. That’s a small point though and certainly didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the book overall.
Whilst Blood and Beauty isn’t a genre defining work in the way that Wolf Hall is, it’s certainly a good example of historical fiction and a really good read. I was glad to see in Dunant’s closing note that there’s a sequel to come. I’ll definitely be picking that up.