Poison: A Novel of the Renaissance
by Sara Poole
To secure her father’s old position as the “poisoner” of Cardinal Borgia, Francesca murders the current poisoner. The gamble pays off – in spite of being a woman, Francesca becomes responsible for keeping the Cardinal and his family safe from would-be assassins. Her new job brings peril, but also allows her a chance to revenge the murder of her father. Francesca soon learns that she is not the only person suffering in the city of Rome; rumors abound that the Church will soon expel the Jews in the city. But the current Pope is weak, perhaps dying, so Borgia begins a campaign to secure the Papal throne for himself. As tensions rise between the Cardinal and others who would become Pope, Francesca becomes embroiled in plots and intrigues that could tear the city apart.
Our narrator Francesca is a very chatty young woman. As she’s telling us the action, she indulges in little asides, confidences and gossipy divulgences that distracted from the main story. Several times, she drops hints that the events she shares happened many years ago – as if she’s telling the story at a fire side to a friend or her children. This is fine, for the most part, but it kills the suspense in several key scenes when you know that Francesca must survive, for how else could she be telling the story? It also seems a bit odd that so many people confide their secrets in her, because it doesn’t seem very likely she’d be able to keep a secret for long.
Francesca is also quite modern, a complete anachronism to 15th century Rome. She moves freely about the city, dressed as a boy, and earns a decent living in her position as poisoner, a position that gives her control over the security of the entire Borgia family. To me, one of the biggest shockers would be that no one seriously pressures Francesca into marriage, which seems to be the main focus of young single women in most historical novels set in the period.
But if you can accept the license taken by the author in her character’s life and personality, it’s a fun story full of exciting adventures and political intrigue. Much of the story takes place in and around the Jewish ghetto, an unusual location for stories set in Rome. Some of the scenes can be graphic in description, especially when describing the dying and grievously ill.
The end is left wide open. All that’s missing is the ‘to be continued’ printed at the bottom of the page. Poking around on Amazon, it looks like the sequel will be released in June 2011 under the title The Borgia Betrayal.
3.5 out of 5 stars