LUCREZIA BORGIA AND THE
MOTHER OF POISONS
Forge, Sep 2003
Reviewed by Joy Calderwood
Historical Mystery, Renaissance
It isnít easy to be a member of a murdering family, especially when all you want is a quiet place far away from death. Lucrezia Borgia believes she has found such a place. Her new husband, Alfonso, is heir to the duchy of Ferrara. This makes him too strong to be casually used or threatened by her brother, the ruthless conqueror Cesare Borgia, and her father, the unscrupulous Pope Alexander VI.
Lucreziaís father paid a huge dowry to arrange her marriage into an old and powerful Italian ruling family. In spite of the wealth she brought, her father-in-law Duke Ercole d'Este lets no opportunity pass to demonstrate that he considers the Borgias beneath him. When one of her ladies is murdered, and the Duke wants to cover up what he seems to consider only a faux pas, Lucrezia is determined to find the killer. She will not give anyone the chance to use this death as political ammunition against her. Besides, the victim was a sweet, generous lady whose only fault was being too accommodating, and Lucrezia refuses to let her go unavenged.
Lucrezia is one of Roberta Gellisís most endearing heroines yet. She handles her very real problems with a warm-hearted intelligence that delights the reader and even begins to make an impression on her boorish husband. Alfonso has no interest in charming anyone, including his wife, but Lucrezia handles his rudeness with aplomb because she understands him. This results in one of the most obscure declarations of marital support I have ever read, with the combination of humor and emotional impact that Gellis seems to be able to call up whenever she chooses.
Lucrezia Borgia is not as unlikely a candidate for detective as she may seem. The myths about her donít include her administrative experience Ė when she ruled a city it wasnít in name only Ė nor do the myths include her relief at escaping from the blatant crimes of the rest of her family. Roberta Gellis has researched her history as carefully as ever. The only difference I can pinpoint between Gellisís Lucrezia and Alfonso and the historical reports is the speed with which they came to an understanding. The first book about Lucrezia is way too soon, historically, for Alfonso to start seeing good in her, but it is necessary for the plot.
Ornate art and decoration, so important to the nobility of the Renaissance, cover the story in a rich imagery. The central importance of perfume and lotions to the story adds to an atmosphere of luxury. Several of the conflicts that were actually taking place at the time, whether involving Lucrezia personally or Italy politically, are woven into LUCREZIA BORGIA AND THE MOTHER OF POISONS. Covert murder was a frequent part of conflict in Italy during the Renaissance, leaving a rich mine of material for future books in this series.
Aug 2003 Review
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