Following my enjoyment of Médicis Daughter and still waiting for the next in Laura Andersen’s Tudor Legacy series to become available, I’d been looking for something else in the fifteenth or sixteenth century royal court, intrigue and drama niche. When I saw that there was an upcoming novelization of the life of Lucrezia Borgia—C. W. Gortner’s The Vatican Princess—I figured that would fit the bill. While it certainly was full of political and personal maneuvering and drama, I realized that it wasn’t quite what I was looking for but not for the reasons I’d expected.
Told from Lucrezia’s first person perspective, The Vatican Princess begins with the conclave during which her father, Rodrigo Borgia, is elected as Pope and becomes Alexander VI. She is only getting ready to turn thirteen at the time of her father’s ascension to the papacy and while she doesn’t get along too well with her mother or her brother, Juan, she is quite close to her oldest brother, Cesare who is vocal about his resentment for the being pushed by their father to join the church. The rivalry between Cesare and Juan is established early and Lucrezia finds herself at the center of it inadvertently, paying a high price for being female in a man’s world. A political pawn expected to marry where and when her father bids, Lucrezia learns just how far her family is willing to go to protect itself and how much being a Borgia means to her.
Now, Lucrezia Borgia is one of those women whom history painted as a femme fatale, manipulative, depraved, and any other unflattering thing that ever has been or could be said about women. In the last few years, maybe even a decade or two, she’s been approached academically and opinions of her have been revised to suggest she was less an active participant in the infamous Borgia plotting and depravity and more a pawn used to solidify alliances and doing as she was bid by the powerful men in her life—the truth likely lies somewhere between an adept puppet-master and completely innocent victim. In Gortner’s novelization, the victim angle is hit a little hard for my taste.
That’s not to say that Lucrezia Borgia wasn’t very much a victim of her father’s and brother’s machinations, but many of the gaps in the historical narrative—primarily details surrounding a possible/probably pregnancy at the time of her annulment from her first husband—are filled in such a way that emphasizes her passivity of Lucrezia, flattening her as a character and, in my opinion, weakening a novel that is supposed to center around her (these changes feel like they were contrived to shock the reader as much as possible and that they serve a story that isn’t really hers and with her as the central character and narrator of the novel, it was a choice I really didn’t care for).
I can’t help drawing comparisons to Médicis Daughter where Marguerite de Valois is in a very similar situation, surrounded by manipulative family with a great deal if not total control over her life. In that novel, despite the mistakes Margot makes when she does trust her family, she isn’t a passive character always sixteen steps behind everyone around her. But in The Vatican Princess, that’s exactly how it feels to be trapped in Lucrezia’s perspective and only so many excuses can be made for her age at the time—in the beginning when she’s thirteen or fourteen, maybe but beyond a certain point it stops being believable, especially for how educated she’s portrayed as being. Despite being ostensibly about Lucrezia Borgia, The Vatican Princess is more an examination of Cesare Borgia as told by Lucrezia.
The Vatican Princess by C. W. Gortner will be available February 9, 2016.