Book Review: The Borgia Bride

The Borgia Bride by Jeanne Kalogrides
April 21, 2005 | Paperback
St. Martin’s Griffin
528 Pages | 0312341385 | $15.99
Buy: Amazon

Plot Synopsis:
Vivacious Sancha of Aragon arrives in Rome newly wed to a member of the notorious Borgia dynasty. Surrounded by the city’s opulence and political corruption, she befriends her glamorous and deceitful sister-in-law, Lucrezia, whose jealousy is as legendary as her beauty. Some say Lucrezia has poisoned her rivals, particularly those to whom her handsome brother, Cesare, has given his heart. So when Sancha falls under Cesare’s irresistible spell, she must hide her secret or lose her life. Caught in the Borgias’ sinister web, she summons her courage and uses her cunning to outwit them at their own game. Vividly interweaving historical detail with fiction, The Borgia Bride is a richly compelling tale of conspiracy, sexual intrigue, loyalty, and drama.

First off, I’d like to say that this review was a lot longer, but I trimmed it down ;-) I’ve been very interested in the Borgia family for the past few years, and they’re one of the most fascinating parts of European Renaissance history.
Okay, okay, I admit it. I’m in withdrawal after the first season of Showtime’s The Borgias ended a few weeks ago. I love Neil Jordan’s vision of Renaissance Italy, of what went on in Pope Alexander VI’s household, and, of course, the actor who portrays Cesare Borgia, the talented Francois Arnaud. He did a fantastic job and I look forward to seeing what he does in season two.

Because of said withdrawal, I decided to check out some Borgia fiction. Having already read The Family by Mario Puzo years before the show started, I thought I’d check out some alternate options. (The Family was well-written and interesting, but Puzo goes all the way with the incest rumours, for those interested, and the way that the dastardly Pope explains it to his children is, well, disturbing. Jeremy Irons’ version of the Pope hasn’t gotten anything on Puzo’s).

One of the first books I found was from Jeanne Kalogrides, author of The Devil’s Queen, about Catherine of Medici. The back cover blurb sounded intriguing, so I thought I’d give it a shot. I started reading the first few pages and soon I had finished the first few chapters, my interest thoroughly piqued.

Sancia of Aragon (pronounced “san-cha” and thus spelled as Sancha in this book and heretofore spelled as Sancha), for those who don’t know, was an illegitimate daughter of King Alfonso II of Naples. She married 13 year-old Joffre Borgia against her will, and unsurprisingly, they didn’t have kids (although they do shack up a number of times, much to her chagrin). While we’re on the history part, her brother, Alfonso of Aragon, was Lucrezia Borgias’ second husband (and one she actually liked. A lot. Which pissed Cesare off royally). The historical record and The Borgia Bride do intersect, but Kalogrides makes a number of amendments to suit her story, which made sense given that she put the spotlight on Sancha (who, incidentally, is played by one of my favourite actresses, Emmanuelle Chriqui in the Showtime series).

Sancha starts out as a rebellious youth who gets along well with her grandfather, King Ferrante of Naples (or Ferdinand I) despite his penchant for stuffing the bodies of his enemies and putting them in display in a cordoned off room of his castle,sitting around a dining table. But Sancha’s dad, Alfonso II, aka Douchebag #1, doesn’t like her independent spirit or the fact that she has the balls to question him, and he’s had it in for her since she was a kid, which is why he separates her from her favourite playmate, her brother (also named Alfonso; we’ll call him Alf despite any associations with a certain TV alien). Sancha eventually hooks up with an older guy who treats her nicely, and since they’re engaged, things are looking up for our heroine. Until her dad pulls the ultimate douchebag card and marries her off to Joffre, who is younger, shorter, kind of girly looking, and generally a wimp who never stands up for himself.

The book does a great job of re-painting some of the common perceptions and beliefs we have about the historical characters featured, including Lucrezia, who starts off like a bitch but softens toward Sancha eventually (the two become very good friends), and the Pope is basically portrayed as the lecherous, ass-grabbing pervy old man that he was rumoured to be. Cesare gets the most interesting treatment, starting off like an angel and ending up as someone so dark and violent that he would put Beelzebub to shame.

Cesare and Sancha begin an affair, and things seem to be going swimmingly until Juan Borgia, or Douchebag #2 as he will be affectionately known for the rest of the novel, comes into play. He screws things up for them by lying after having violated Sancha, but Cesare doesn’t know that. It escalates until Sancha finds out that Cesare isn’t all he’s cracked up to be. He has huge ambitions after he ceases to become a cardinal, something that does happen, and she knows from the start that it’s trouble for her. He claims to love her and to be crazy about her, but she also sees him smooching dear old sis, who, incidentally, isn’t into her bro, but rather Sancha’s, named Alfonso (it doesn’t help that her first hubby, Alfonso Sforza, has the same name. As does hubby #2′s dad. *sigh*)

It all pretty much goes downhill for Sancha after Cesare starts murdering like there’s no tomorrow. He starts going large-scale with his plans, making an alliance with France to try to take Romagna and also Naples as revenge against Sancha. And, like her father before her, Cesare knows that Sancha’s Achilles heel is her brother. As history buffs will know, he had it in for Alf (Lucrezia’s husband) allegedly because he was jealous, but this novel deviates from history’s version, which is fine in the context. While I had higher hopes for the ending, especially because of Sancha’s prowess with her blade, and I envisioned something more like a great Mexican standoff, what occurs is satisfying.

Cesare starts out like a prince, but bonus points to Kalogrides for not hiding what a cad he truly was — murderer, liar, adulterer, and master manipulator all rolled into one good looking package (well, until he gets syphilis, gets pockmarks all over his face, and takes to wearing a black veil to hide it from people. Yeah. Not pretty). Sancha, on the other hand, is as likeable a historical heroine you could ask for. She’s a fully fleshed out, three-dimensional person who isn’t just a tool to move the plot along. She’s brave, noble, kind, but also tough when she needs to be and far more interesting than the historical Sancia.

It was fascinating to see Cesare’s true, uncensored darkness, something I hope the Showtime series delivers more of in the coming second season. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve seen hints of that darkness when Cesare murdered another woman’s husband, and with his hiring out of the asssassin Michiletto, but I don’t think that the ruthlessness has been cranked up to full blast just yet. Here’s to hoping that it does.

So if you’re currently Borgia obsessed and need a different kind of fix that involves a fascinating narrative, a likeable protagonist, intrigue, and a well-written story, then look no further than The Borgia Bride.

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