When One Expects Murder and Mayhem, Soft Squishy Cores are Usually Not Welcome – A Review of The Malice of Fortune by Michael Ennis

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Much has been said and written about, the Borgias. The increased interest in the Borgia family (mostly due to the popularity of Neil Jordan’s The Borgias TV series) has led to an increased interest in them. This is no surprise: the story of the Borgias, even when told as bare history, is very interesting. Of course, there is much about that history that is in itself fiction: many contemporary historians are careful about what they accept as truth or rumor about this family, because so much of what was written about them in their own lifetimes, and much of what was written after, is tainted by the slander of their many enemies. Despite this, the Borgias still exert a pull of fascination on almost anyone who comes across them.

This means, of course, that writers are always writing about them, in some way, shape, or form, interpreting and reinterpreting the facts (and some of the rumors) according to how they wish to portray this family. The most recent (and possibly the best) attempt at portraying the Borgias in fiction has to be the novel Blood & Beauty by Sarah Dunant, who does what all good historical novelists must do: bring these historical figures to life as rich, complex characters without sacrificing too much historical accuracy or atmosphere.

But every now and again, another kind of novel crosses my path: the kind that has a premise so enormous, so spectacular, that even though it can potentially (and often does) chuck historical accuracy out the window I cannot help but pick it up and give it a shot. This was the case with The Malice of Fortune by Michael Ennis. I cannot recall how I found out about it, precisely, but as soon as I saw the blurb for it, I was hooked.

Set during Cesare’s conquest of the Romagna, the novel is told in two first-person narrations, in four parts. The first fourth is narrated by Damiata, a cortigiana onesta (or “honest courtesan”) who was the mistress of Juan Borgia, Cesare’s younger brother, Duke of Gandia, Captain-General of the Papal Army, and favorite son of Rodrigo Borgia, otherwise known as Pope Alexander VI. In a desperate bid to find out who killed his son, Rodrigo holds Damiata’s son hostage, and sends her off to Imola, currently occupied by a combination of the Papal Army and the armies of the condotierri, the former led by Cesare Borgia (by this time already in possession of the title Duke of Valentinois, and often called Duke Valentino or just Valentino throughout the course of the novel), and the latter led by Vitellozzo Vitelli and his cohorts. She is supposed to investigate a string of gruesome murders Rodrigo believes are related to Juan’s murder. The victims are women, all of them cut up into pieces and scattered all around the countryside surrounding the city.

Soon after she arrives there, Damiata meets the narrator of the remaining three-fourths of the novel: Niccolo Machiavelli, a minor Florentine diplomat who has been sent to Imola as a delaying tactic by the Florentine Republic. Florence dreads an alliance between Vitelli and Cesare, fearing that Cesare will allow Vitelli to sack Florence in exchange for his military aid. Machiavelli, the second narrator, is charmed by Damiata’s beauty and begins helping her in solving these murders. Along the way they bump into Leonardo da Vinci, serving Cesare as engineer general, and who is also investigating the murders. However, the murderer is infinitely clever, and uncovering his identity is not only difficult, but dangerous.

I suppose it goes without saying that the concept for this novel is extraordinary, especially considering the people involved: Niccolo Machiavelli and Leonardo da Vinci team up with a courtesan (and not just any courtesan, but the more glamorous cortigiana onesta, whom I first read about in Dunant’s In the Company of the Courtesan) to catch a serial killer? The idea is incredibly appealing, and is primarily the reason why I decided to pick up this novel in the first place. Unfortunately, through the premise is exceedingly interesting, the novel doesn’t manage to follow through on that initial hook.

What makes reading a mystery – any mystery – fun is the game the reader plays with the writer, trying to predict what will happen next based on clues the writer has left in the text. The reader does not follow the crime-solvers so much as play the game alongside them. The Malice of Fortune does not function in this manner at all. Instead, Ennis throws a red herring so large it’s hard to mistake it as anything but a red herring, though if one is willing to be convinced (as I was) that it is not a red herring then one eventually figures out who the killer is just past the novel’s halfway point. This means the reader is left with almost half a book’s worth of story wherein all he or she can do, having solved the mystery ahead of even the characters, is sit back and watch aforementioned characters bungle their way through the case until, finally, they find out what the reader has known all along.

Now, such a thing is, in my opinion, somewhat tolerable, as long as the characters are such that even when they are attempting to solve a puzzle the reader has already solved ahead of them, they are still interesting. And really, given the character lineup for this novel, The Malice of Fortune ought to have been able to salvage itself: Machiavelli, Cesare Borgia, and Leonardo were and are still very interesting people, and the condotierri are, too, in their own way. But that is not what happens – in fact, the most interesting character is the one character who is truly fictional: Damiata. Leonardo’s characterization is a bit off, but given how small a role he plays in this novel (despite what the book’s blurb may imply), his characterization is something I thought I could let slide.

Machiavelli’s characterization, however, is not something I can let go of so easily. I understand the tendency for narration to ramble when one is telling a story in the first-person perspective, but Machiavelli’s narration of three-fourths of the novel is so saturated with his lovesick musings over Damiata that it sets my teeth on edge – especially when the idea that Damiata and Machiavelli are soulmates is introduced to explain their near-instant attraction to each other. Now, I have nothing against romance in a novel, but this is a bit much. I was expecting something harder, something more intense in terms of crime-solving – indeed, I was rather hoping that the trio of Damiata, Machiavelli and Leonardo would be the Renaissance equivalent of the team from the show Criminal Minds. I was rather imagining they would be better, actually. As it stands, this novel would be a lot shorter – and a lot tighter – if the love story had been trimmed (and by this I mean retained, but given far less emphasis) in favor of some actual crime-solving. I would especially have loved for Leonardo to have been given a larger role, especially since he is supposed to be acting as the prototype forensic specialist here.

As for the choice of serial killer, I have to say I’m not entirely surprised, though I am left rather dissatisfied by the explanation. I will admit that I am intrigued by the idea of Cesare Borgia as a psychopath, and I have seen some novels that touch upon the concept (Sara Poole’s Poison is a good example) but do not explore it further. When I figured out that Cesare was the serial killer, I was hoping for an exploration of his psychopathy, hoping that it would be something interesting and worth the slog through Machiavelli’s narration. When I’d figured it out, I thought that it was somewhat interesting, but almost not worth wading through the morass of Machiavell’s thoughts to get there. I was just glad to finally find out what was going on in his brain, mostly.

Overall, The Malice of Fortune has an almost mind-blowing premise, but the rest of the novel is unable to deliver on it. If one is expecting a historical mystery along the lines of The Silence of the Lambs, or at least Criminal Minds, then one is better off looking elsewhere, because this is not it, despite what the blurb may promise. It has a surprisingly squishy center that, while not entirely unwelcome, was not handled well enough, to the point that the reader has no choice but to wade through almost sickeningly-sweet musings to get any crime-solving done. If one is willing to put up with this, they may get to the ending and at least find some sort of resolution to the central mystery, but others may find this isn’t worth the trouble – and they might be right.

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