There's a bit of a back story to this review. A long time ago I found this book, billed as "a novel of Shakespeare", and commented that "I wish I had time to read it." A year later, as I do the occasional book review, the author David Blixt called me out on it. After all, he hangs out here. Fair enough. So I went about getting myself a copy, and just finished it this week. I review it with the full knowledge that the author is one of my most prolific commenters.
I was pretty worried about what I'd gotten myself into for the first 20 pages or so. This is a historical novel, set in the 1300's around the son of one Dante Alighieri, yes, the one who wrote The Inferno. As a matter of fact this is a major arc of the book, as The Inferno has only recently been published, and Dante is something of a rock star, traveling from patron to patron, discussing philosophy while people secretly make signs behind his back to ward off the devil. I'm not usually much of a history guy. "Speculative fiction", the near future stuff, is more my thing. I knew that there'd be some Shakespeare to come, as that is what caught my attention in the first place. Apparently within this world of the Alighieri's, I was to learn what started the feud between the Montagues and Capulets.
Whenever I saw that the book started with a family tree (more to the point a "dramatis personae", just like any of Shakespeare's work, although this one is organized by family) and a number of maps, I thought I was doomed. That's no failing of the author - that's just my relationship to this sort of epic story. My "thing" is characters on stage (or on the page) doing things and saying things, and saying why they're doing things and doing things to back up what they're saying. If somebody hates his distant cousin because there was a failed hostile takeover between their grandfathers, I internalize it better if one character says it to another character. Seeing it on a family tree does nothing for me.
Anyway, back to the story. I got my action and dialogue soon enough as Pietro, son of Dante, is cast into a battle alongside his new friends Anthony Capecelatro (soon to be Cappuletto), and Mariotto "Romeo" Montecchio, under the charge of the Francesco "Cangrande" della Scala, legendary leader of Verona. From that point on, I loved it. There's action - lots and lots of action. There's character development. There's a good story about a prophecy and a child who may or may not grow up to fulfill his destiny. It is particularly fascinating to watch the development of Pietro, recently knighted, who matures into quite a hero indeed. I also like the child, very much. I do not like at all how the adults treated the child. But as a character I thought the child was written very well, and could only imagine that the author's own child had something to do with that (although I believe I'm wrong there).
Along the way, as promised, we learn the history of the "Montecchios" and the "Capulets". I guess there I got a little confused, as I do not know all the multiple sources to Romeo and Juliet that Shakespeare used. I thought this was supposed to be sort of prequel to the Shakespeare story, the cause of the "ancient grudge" that "breaks to new mutiny." But one of the characters in the story is in fact named Romeo (although on first introduction he says "Never call me that" and it's never spoken of again). So perhaps that's the author's joke, but it did have me scratching my head trying to figure out if he was supposed to be *the* Romeo. I find, though, that I didn't end up as interested in that story as I thought. I only ever found this book as "a novel of Shakespeare", but ended up far more interested in Dante and his son. There are a number of Shakespeare references and jokes, many of which I'm sure I missed. (Update: It just clicked with me that perhaps I do get it, if Romeo grows up to have a son named Romeo, which would be a logical thing to do.....)
In the end, I'm not quite sure I understood all of the political twists and turns that were taken. There are characters who seem good that do horrible things, and vice versa. There are several major characters where you're really left scratching your head, trying to figure out if they're good people or not. But through it all there's a certain innocent nobility that follows Pietro. An underlying theme of the story is that of astrology, and Fate, and whether your destiny takes its course automatically or whether you're expected to take an active role in it. (I love, by the way, the reference to Macbeth right in the middle of all this - if the witches hadn't told Macbeth that he'd be king, would he have killed the king?) Pietro is a walking example of this question. Does he end up where he does because of free will, the manipulation of others, or just Fate? Or are they all ultimately the same thing?
I can't say that I'm suddenly a fan of historical fiction now. As I said, give me dialogue and action over politics any day. But I can say that I enjoyed this book, very much. I have reviewed books that I felt were a chore, and looked at the end with relief that I could move on. With this one I anxiously returned to my reading each morning and evening (train to work, don'cha know), honestly curious about how it would end. As it seems set up for a sequel, I can honestly say that I'd like to read the sequel. The politics and the prophecy don't mean much to me, but I can appreciate well developed characters and want to see how their lives turn out.