by Karen Essex
The weddings for two sisters, Isabella and Beatrice d'Este, are approaching. The older sister, Isabella, is beautiful and clever, renowned around Italy for her accomplishments. She is to marry Francesco Gonzaga, a handsome young man from an important but poor kingdom, while the younger sister Beatrice will marry Ludovico Sforza, an older man who holds the power, if not the title, of the Duke of Milan. Isabella and Ludovico are instant friends; both share a passion for art, and Leonardo da Vinci's presence at the court of Milan delights her. Beatrice, sidelined by her husband as he pursues her married older sister, grows increasingly desperate. She becomes determined to reclaim her husband and establish herself as the greatest woman in Italy, replacing her sister in the spotlight. As Beatrice's star rises and Isabella begins to suspect she made the wrong choice in marrying Francesco, war looms on the horizon, threatening to throw the Italian states into chaos.
Isabella and Beatrice are powerful women, living in a time when women were seen as little more than baby-makers and arm candy. As the Marquesa of Mantua, Isabella proves to be an able administrator who keeps the kingdom running while her husband is off leading troops in battle. As an intelligent woman with an excellent education, she's also renowned for her wit, sparkling conversation, and patronage of art. Initially, Beatrice is lost in Isabella's shadow, outmatched in everything save her love of hunting and skill with horses. But the power of her husband, and his vast wealth,allows her to outstrip her sister. The rivalry between the two women is always there, even as they continue to adore each other with sisterly affection.
Leonardo da Vinci's letters pepper the book; excerpts precede each chapter. Sometimes they relate to the story, while at other times they seem truly random. The artist himself, referred to as Magistro by his patrons, pops up now and again to discuss art or murmur some nugget of wisdom. His flighty nature and inability to follow through on his commissions may drive Ludovico Sforza near to madness, but da Vinci's genius is recognized by all.
Although I really loved Essex's Stealing Athena, I found that I couldn't really get into this novel. The book uses both past and present tense, and the transition between the two can be quite sudden. In some chapters, the story would flip back and forth between the two tenses with such rapidity that I'd lose track of the time and place completely. It drove me nuts. Some of the conversations – especially the ones analyzing art – seemed contrived and didn't quite flow naturally. Still, if someone is unfamiliar with the history of Italy during the 15th century, this could be an insightful read as the d'Este sisters were well-placed to explore the politics of the time.
2.5 out of 5 stars
To read more about Leonardo's Swans, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.
Peeking into the archives...today in:
2011: Mary Boleyn: The Mistress of Kings by Alison Weir
2010: The Inheritance by Simon Tolkien
2009: Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters by Jane Austen and Ben Winters
2008: Author Interview: Kate Hahn