Some historical novels deal in obscure events and little-known characters—those overlooked corners of history particularly ripe for extrapolation and embellishment. Not so The Malice of Fortune, which is set against a familiar backdrop, the Italian Renaissance, and stars iconic figures Niccolò Machiavelli and Leonardo da Vinci working to solve a murder—that of Juan Borgia, son of Pope Alexander VI. Based on actual events, the dense book has an intricate backstory. Ennis spent 12 years researching and writing it, and after two rounds of rejections, decided to solicit feedback from booksellers. Their praise ultimately helped him land a six-figure book deal.
The novel describes political upheaval in 16th-century Italy while telling a heartrending love story involving the courtesan Damiata, Juan’s lover and the novel’s most consistently intriguing character. But it’s the murder plot with which Ennis has the most fun. Machiavelli, who studies human behavior, is the forensic profiler, and da Vinci, with his prescient scientific discoveries, the CSI agent. The former mines clues from works by Plutarch and Herodotus, while the latter consults his mappa and makes exacting measurements. Alas, da Vinci and the investigation fade into the background and the narrative becomes bogged down by Machiavelli’s musings on the nature of men, Fortune and Fortune’s, uh, malice. Such over-explanation may be a product of the author’s years of relentless research and editing. These efforts are better served in vivid descriptions of Renaissance sights and smells: “The [Pope’s] establishment reeked of pleasure: smoldering censers, fresh orange and rose water, roasted meats, musk, wax candles and spilled wine.” Like the best historical fiction, the novel transports the reader entirely elsewhere.
Ennis reads at Cook Memorial Public Library Tuesday 18.