Jo Walton’s 2019 Lent is a standalone historical fantasy.
Dominican prior Girolamo Savonarola of Florence is a man of many gifts. He can see demons. He can cast them back to Hell. He has profound powers of persuasion. He is a man who can shape history.
He is also fated to be hanged and burned in May of 1498.
The 1490s are an interesting period in Italian history. Italy is an economic and cultural powerhouse. The peninsula is also disunited, divided into a number of small principalities.
Each principality is strong enough to resist annexation by its neighbors, but none are strong enough to stand alone against the invading armies of larger, better organized kingdoms. The Italic League bought time, but its decline means that Italy is fated to suffer war, generation after generation, as the French monarchy and the Habsburgs struggle to control Italy.
Girolamo knows what’s coming in the near future. While he does not have the power to use what he knows to radically alter history-to-come, he can effect smaller changes. Many Italian cities will burn as Charles VII of France starts the first in a long series of Italian Wars. Florence might be spared, if only Girolamo can be persuasive enough.
Preternatural charm wins Florence not just a stay of execution, but freedom from Medici domination, and a new republican government very open to Girolamo’s guidance. Determined to transform Florence into a pious, holy city, Girolamo institutes widespread reforms aimed at driving out sin and encouraging virtue.
He is quite aware there will be a bill to pay for all this. The Pope is his bitter enemy. While Girolamo can delay martyrdom, he cannot avoid it. Some legal justification for arresting Girolamo will be found and by 1498, Girolamo will be dead.
And yet … death is not necessarily the end for someone with Girolamo’s talents.
Girolamo has remarkable gifts, which he does his best to use in service of making Florence a better place. Those same gifts are also a significant impediment, in that they fuel his worst weakness, an all-consuming pride. He is self-aware enough to understand that he is prone to pride, but not strong enough to resist his besetting sin.
The first half of the novel is a fairly straightforward historical fantasy: Italian history as it is known, but seasoned with demons and miracles. I was reminded of MacAvoy’s Damiano trilogy and Yarbro’s Ariosto . Even passing knowledge of Italian history (or at least enough to namedrop Girolamo Savonarola) is sufficient that readers will guess that his Earthly career isn’t going to end with victory parades and congratulations all round.
At the halfway mark, however, Walton takes the novel in an entirely unexpected direction: she reveals the why and wherefore of Girolamo’s celestial gifts. Girolamo operates under significant constraints; knowing the script does not help him significantly alter it. In the second half of the book, she recounts his struggles to overcome or at least sidestep his limits.
Italy of this time lends itself to flamboyant, violent tales of self-serving, deluded men clawing each other down like lobsters in a bucket … as well as to spectacles of pious cruelty illuminated by martyrs’ pyres. Walton is not interested in telling that story. No, her characters are doing their best to find a path out of the historical trap in which they find themselves. The circumstances may be horrible, but the focus is on hope and reform.
As is usually the case with Walton’s novels, the prose is good to superlative and the characters are interesting enough to keep me turning pages. Thumbs up.
1: Also of Blish’s Doctor Mirabilis . Even though it is purely historical and mainly concerned with Britain.