Of Poison, Hubris, Madness, Politics, and Above All, La Famiglia – A Review of Poison by Sara Poole

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I’ve said many a time before that I am thoroughly enamored of the Italian Renaissance. It’s one of my favorite periods in history – among many, to be sure, but this is one particular time period in which my interest borders on the obsessive. I will read as much about it as I can get my hands on; I will watch movies, TV shows, and documentaries set in the period; I will even look for traces of it in the fiction I read. However, while my interest in the period is broad enough to span almost its entirety, most of my interest lies in one rather narrow point in time of that era: the time from the 1490s to the early 1500s, when the Borgias rose to the pinnacle of power, and then fell from it so spectacularly.

There has been quite a bit of fictional and non-fictional material on that (in)famous family generated over the years, but in recent times there’s been a shift in the way they’re portrayed in non-fiction and, as a consequence, in fiction. Careful and more unbiased research has led to many historians taking a different perspective on the numerous accusations that have been leveled against the Borgias through the years (some of which have grown to outright fantastical proportions), though they’re also careful to point out that the Borgias were not innocent of everything they’ve been accused of, either. It is this grayer, less clear-cut portrayal of the Borgias that Sara Poole subscribes to in her novel Poison: A Novel of the Renaissance, the first in The Poisoner Mysteries series.

Poison opens with a dead man: a man poisoned by the novel’s narrator and protagonist, Francesca Giordano. She did so in order to prove to the man’s employer, Rodrigo Borgia, that she was more than capable of becoming Borgia’s poisoner, which had been her father’s position before he’d been murdered. Almost immediately after being appointed to her father’s position in the Borgia household, she finds herself tangled up in a conspiracy involving her father’s murderer; a mysterious association called Lux; and the Jews of Rome, who are flooding into Italy after being expelled from Spain by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Aside from all of these very complicated things, Francesca must protect the interests and ambitions of Rodrigo and La Famiglia, as he makes a gamble for the pinnacle of power in the Christian world: the Throne of St. Peter itself.

Since Poison is narrated from the first-person perspective, it was pretty much essential to my enjoyment of it that Francesca be a character I could like, whose voice I could listen to with as little irritation as she told her story – and fortunately, she is exactly that. The fact that she dispatched her primary competition for the position of poisoner/food taster of the Borgia household the way she did pretty much ensured my interest in her, and the rest of the novel ensured that I would be hooked. She’s depicted as a woman of means, financially independent and capable of making her own way in the world with little help from those around her. While this is typical of the female characters I enjoy reading about, one of the best things Poole has done in this novel is to actually frame Francesca’s power according to her position in the world during that time period. While it’s true that many women (particularly those of the merchant class or similar) were capable of having a certain amount of independence, it’s still true that that period of history is very patriarchal, and so any amount of power a woman might have would be severely limited by the social structure of the time. The fact that many people find Francesca’s position as Borgia’s poisoner unusual, and that some call her strega, or witch, is accurate to the time period – and are details I greatly appreciate.

Another thing I like about Francesca is the tone of her voice: there’s a certain coolness to it that I thoroughly enjoy. She has more passionate emotions, of course – she’s got something of a temper, and a tendency towards impulsiveness – but she’s always careful to make sure that such emotions are never put on display. If they do surface, she’s quick to pull them back in and put on her veneer of calm. Equally interesting is how she’s aware of a certain “darkness” inside herself: a willingness (though certainly not eagerness) to kill people if she thinks they have wronged her or those she cares for, a certain inability to feel sympathy or have any attacks of conscience when she takes a life. This makes it sound as if Francesca is a bit of a sociopath, which really wouldn’t surprise me in the least. What I find intriguing, though, is that she recognizes her darkness, and she has an uneasy relationship with it.

Given how interesting Francesca is, I’d rather hoped that the characters around her would be just as interesting, but some of them don’t quite hold my interest through to the end of the novel. Rocco Moroni, a glassmaker who was a friend of Francesca’s father, and now a friend of Francesca herself, initially struck me as quite interesting, given his past and his present existence, but after a while he’d lost something of his shine, remaining static in a particular, given role. The same can be said of the primary villain, the priest Bernardo Morozzi. At first I thought he’d prove to be an intriguing villain, of the kind that’s wily and maybe just a little sympathetic, but that’s not what happens, with his villainy attributed by many of the characters that bump up against him to a mixture of madness, genius, and hubris – in short, rather close to the villain in a superhero comic book, albeit with less mustache-twirling and evil laughter. Of course, this is just the first book in a series, so I suppose such characters will become more complex further down the line.

As for the Borgias themselves, Poole’s take on them falls in line with what most historians today tend to say about them. There’s no denying that Rodrigo Borgia had immense ambitions for his family, and that he himself was an extremely intelligent man, and Poole writes him precisely as that. Cesare is also written closer to the vein of current historical knowledge regarding the Borgias, though Poole adds an intriguing little twist to his character when it comes to Cesare’s piety – not that it’s straightforward piety as Christians understood it during the time period, but an interesting variation of that. As for Lucrezia, she is every bit as charming and sweet as history claims her to be at the time that this takes place (1492, to be precise), but possessing a great deal of intelligence and insight – one that, Francesca states, is often underestimated.

While it’s safe to say that the reader will likely find Poole’s portrayal of the Borgias to be more interesting than her portrayal of the other characters save Francesca, her portrayal of Cesare may have some people raising their eyebrows – especially because of the nature of his relationship with Francesca herself. While it’s true that Cesare was often portrayed as being particularly libidinous, I found myself occasionally wondering if he constantly had sex on the brain, given how Poole portrayed that aspect of his personality. I think it was meant to suggest that he had poor impulse control (which would be entirely unsurprising, even to a historian), but I think it could have been shown in a different manner. This isn’t to say that I find his relationship with Francesca unrealistic. I just think he didn’t think about sex as often as Poole appears to imply.

And here, I think, is the primary problem I have with this novel: the structure. While I have absolutely no problems with Francesca’s voice as narrator, I do have some issue with the way the story itself is organized. It could be argued that the choppy structure is the result of the first-person perspective, but I’ve read novels told in the first-person that read much more smoothly than this. The structure, as it stands, serves well enough to support the plot twists and reveals that are central to this novel, but it doesn’t make for a completely smooth read. There were moments when I wished that Poole had taken the time to smooth the structure out, because the book would have been an even more enjoyable read.

Overall, Poison was a no-brainer for me to read: it fits into the very precise, narrow time period that I really like reading about, and features historical figures I’m already intrigued with. Even better, it featured a protagonist I could really get behind, who also happened to be a pretty good narrator with a voice that didn’t irritate me in the least. This made up somewhat for the weaker portrayal of some of the other characters, but it couldn’t quite fix some issues with the structure of the narration itself. Despite that, though, the novel itself is readable, with some interesting plot twists that will likely keep the reader on his or her toes, if they’re willing to put up with the weaknesses of the structure.

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