Thursday, August 18, 2011

Sistine Heresy by Justine Saracen

Publisher:             Bold Strokes Books

Justine Saracen has combined historic fact with fiction to create a rich story set in the time of Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Borgias. Although much of the plot is manufactured, it is so accurate in its detail and tone that the people come alive and it could pass for an actual record of the period.

Adrianna Borgia lives balanced on the edge of a sword. During the reign of Pope Alexander VI, she led a privileged life as the widow of one of his sons and the mistress of the other. His death brought a change in attitudes in Rome, however, and now Adrianna must be constantly careful about what she says and who she is seen with. She flits on the edge of society with friends who are still important, not the least of which is Michelangelo, but Pope Julius II is not fond of her and the Inquisition is threatening to come into Rome, led by a Dominican cleric who is determined to destroy her. 

Adrianna tries to find quiet comfort in the company of people like the beautiful young castrato Domenico Raggi, who sings in the Vatican choir, and Silvio Piccolomini, who has too much fascination with the philosophies of the ancient Greeks and the new science that is sweeping across Europe.  The person who could spell disaster for her, though, is Raphaela Bramante, a talented painter who stirs strange, ungodly feelings in her. 

When Michelangelo begins painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Adrianna convinces him to take on Raphaela as an apprentice disguised as a boy. With intrigue among the Cardinals, scheming by the upper classes and religious zealots looking for any reason to burn people at the stake, the slightest misstep could get all of them killed. Navigating this minefield of politics and religion requires consummate skill and at least one of them will fail tragically. In such an atmosphere, Adrianna and Raphaela have to decide if their relationship is worth their lives, literally.

Justine Saracen shows that she did a tremendous amount of research into the Renaissance period. Little tidbits about the culture of the time that are dropped into the story give it a feeling of reality. The strength of the story, however, is in the character development. The figures step out of the pages and become living creations. The emotions and interactions are so well drawn that it’s impossible to tell the real people from the ones that were manufactured for the book. Knowing how vicious the Inquisition could be and how manipulative the times were keeps the reader in a constant state of suspense as to whether these people will be able to survive the forces around them. 

For history buffs, Sistine Heresy is a thoroughly enjoyable book. For other readers it’s a book that is hard to put down.

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