Reviewed by David Maclaine
There's no way to signify irony by font, so the title City of God might easily mislead a casual book-lover. This gripping novel is set in Rome with more than a few scenes at the Vatican including the pope and occasional cardinals, but there are precious few utterances by any characters showing anything resembling religious feeling. This is, as the subtitle tells us, "A Novel of the Borgias," set during the last few years that Pope Alexander VI - the former Rodrigo Borgia - sat on the throne of St. Peter; that is, when he wasn't at the card table, on the laps of his assorted mistresses, or tending to the interests of his children. These include the celebrated Lucrezia and the brilliant, unscrupulous warlord Cesare, whose plots surround and threaten to destroy the novel's narrator and protagonist, Nicholas Dawson, secretary to the Florentine ambassador to the papal court. Nicholas' counterpart back in Florence - the man who sends him letters and reads the ones he writes - is an off-stage presence whose spirit permeates this work of intrigue and betrayal: Niccolo Machiavelli.
Author Cecelia Holland's characters must navigate the dangerous streets of Rome at the dawn of the sixteenth century, when the crumbling relics of the city's imperial past loom over patches of wasteland and shadowed back streets where thieves and assassins lurk. Nicholas is a suitably detached observer, a man without a country whose flexible moral code allows him to stroll through some of the most infamous scenes of Vatican debauchery without raising an eyebrow. He is at the heart of several vital schemes, with rivals bidding for his loyalty, but his complex sexual entanglement with a young man named Stefano leads him toward life-or-death decisions involving more than pure expediency. City of God is a novel of slowly mounting tension leading to an intense pay-off. It is a brilliant introduction to the people and events that gave us the word "Machiavellian." (1979, 273 pages)More about City of God at Amazon.com