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by Michael Ennis
Doubleday, September 2012
416 pages
ISBN: 0385536313

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

While many mystery novels depend on the events of the mystery to compel readers, others use setting and character to lure them in. THE MALICE OF FORTUNE is one of the latter. It can seem over-complicated, even obtuse, at times, and some of its magic is only to be enjoyed long after the last page has been read.

What is clear is that Michael Ennis knows the Renaissance era well (he was a Rockefeller Foundation Fellow and is the author of two other historical novels). He brings that love of history to his storytelling, which has plenty of basis in fact. For example, the story begins as Pope Alexander VI sends his dead son's courtesan (while holding her young son hostage) to the fortress town of Imola to discover just who killed his favorite son Juan.

The death of Juan Borgia remains a real-life mystery to this day, and other characters that populate the novel (such as Machiavelli and da Vinci) while not necessarily sleuths in reality have been endowed with literary characteristics that are rooted in historical knowledge. Much of the magic of this story, indeed, lies in the uncovering of just what life was like in the Renaissance, as well as more about these important historical figures.

The more difficult part of the book focuses on a secondary killer (or are they one and the same?) who is killing and dismembering women, and leaving their body parts like clues. An aging Leonardo (working as an engineer for Cesare Borgia, Juan's brother) is part mapmaker, part investigator.

Meanwhile there are ongoing military skirmishes, treaties pledged but not signed (how Machiavelli, a Florentine diplomat, enters the story), and endless political machinations behind the scenes, including the manipulation of an uneducated peasantry, who still think of the Devil as an entity as real as the Church.

In the end, THE MALICE OF FORTUNE is not an easy read. It can be difficult to follow and lacking in action, but for anyone who wondered what it was like to live in the era of Bogias and their accompanying political intrigue, this book will be a worthwhile endeavor.

Christine Zibas is a freelance writer and former director of publications for a Chicago nonprofit.

Reviewed by Christine Zibas, January 2013

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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