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Blood & Beauty: The Borgias    by Sarah Dunant order for
Blood & Beauty
by Sarah Dunant
Order:  USA  Can
Random House, 2013 (2013)
Hardcover, e-Book
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Here's another wonderful historical from Sarah Dunant, also author of the acclaimed Birth of Venus, In the Company of the Courtesan and Sacred Hearts. Blood & Beauty tells the story of the infamous Borgias in fifteenth century Italy after Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia became Pope Alexander VI and used his illegitimate children (Cesare and Lucrezia in particular) to build a dynastic power base.

The author opens with a brief Historical Note that nicely sets the scene for Rome and Italy in the summer of 1492. Most Italian states 'were in the hands of family dynasties', with the 'bear pit' of Rome in the middle, and the papacy a great prize as the Pope's 'influence was immense.' Lucrezia and Rodrigo Borgia's mistress Giulia Farnese are close friends and live under the care of Lucrezia's Borgia aunt Adriana. They learn together of how the 'wheel of fortune ... has taken all of them and flung their lives around in ways that none of them can yet imagine.'

Sarah Dunant paints a picture of Rome in this era as 'small islands of wealth poking their heads up amid a sea of festering slums and wilderness.' Soon after the Pope's election, Cesare is named Archbishop of Valencia, while his brother Juan, Duke of Gandia (their father's favorite) indulges in bad behavior that 'makes enemies faster than left meat breeds maggots.' And the first of Lucrezia's three marriages is planned.

Those who have watched the Borgias TV series will find that this novel touches on all the key events (such as Juan's murder and the French invasion that spread syphilis in its wake), though often with a differing interpretation of the historical record, one perhaps somewhat less sympathetic to Cesare Borgia's role. Dunant's Lucrezia is very credible, portrayed as having some degree of attachment to each of her husbands and rebelling against her family's use of her - and disposal of them.

As Blood & Beauty ends, Lucrezia journeys to her last husband in Ferrara, while her father has a premonition that he will not see her again. Fortunately Sarah Dunant plans a concluding novel, so fans can look forward to more. And don't miss the fascinating Historical Epilogue, which discusses contested incidents in the Borgia story. I was totally engrossed by this brilliant novel and look forward to the sequel.

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