Great read: Blood & Beauty

Blood & Beauty By Sarah Dunant, Virago $29.99.
With a new pope charged in part with cleaning up the image of the Catholic Church, Sarah Dunant’s delicious epic delving into Renaissance Italy and the lives and lusts of Rodrigo Borgia and his extended family couldn’t come at a more pertinent time.
While we are most definitely in the 15th century, with the likes of Leonardo da Vinci inciting new ideas, the corruption of power and hypocrisy eating at the heart of the ministry do strike a clanging contemporary chord.
Dunant’s skill is to bring immediacy and accessibility to a world that is quite distant without reducing it to clichÉ or melodrama, making this historical fiction at its most readable.
The story and players are, of course, well known — not least thanks to the recent bodice-ripping TV mini-series — but in Dunant’s hands we start again, as she elegantly builds layers of characterisation, peppered with rich and vivid scenes.
Rodrigo Borgia is an arch politician, whose main skill is manipulation and whose fatal flaw, we are told, is his passionate love for his family.
But is it? Rodrigo seems perfectly adept at selling off his “chaste” daughter, Lucrezia, in a power match that makes her miserable, and he has little time for his petulant young son, JofrÉ, marrying him off in another "deal" at the tender age of 12.
His eldest son, Cesare, cold, brutal and intriguing, is a mess of confused passions, dangerous lusts and blood-thirsty aggression.
The sex scenes are tantalising and the battle scenes furious, but, best of all, it is the intelligent conniving that is so captivating.
At more than 500 pages, this is a big read and the story ends at a crossroads, leaving us begging for more. But, Sarah Dunant tells The Weekly, she’s onto it.
"The next volume will follow those journeys, as well as introducing two more of the most colourful figures of the Italian renaissance.
If I say the names Leonardo da Vinci and — even more exciting for me — Niccolo Machiavelli, you might have some taste of what is to come.” Bring it on.
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