(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)
Rome, 1492. The Holy City is drenched with blood and teeming with secrets. A pope lies dying and the throne of God is left vacant, a prize awarded only to the most virtuous–or the most ruthless. The Borgia family begins its legendary rise, chronicled by an innocent girl who finds herself drawn into their dangerous web…
Vivacious Giulia Farnese has floor-length golden hair and the world at her feet: beauty, wealth, and a handsome young husband. But she is stunned to discover that her glittering marriage is a sham, and she is to be given as a concubine to the ruthless, charismatic Cardinal Borgia: Spaniard, sensualist, candidate for Pope–and passionately in love with her.
Two trusted companions will follow her into the Pope’s shadowy harem: Leonello, a cynical bodyguard bent on bloody revenge against a mysterious killer, and Carmelina, a fiery cook with a past full of secrets. But as corruption thickens in the Vatican and the enemies begin to circle, Giulia and her friends will need all their wits to survive in the world of the Borgias.
This could have quite easily strayed into cliché territory the whole time. At times, it was a little cliché but nothing on the level I expected it to be. I’ll explain a little bit.
Leonello is sort of Kate Quinn’s answer to George R. R. Martin’s Tyrion. He’s quick-thinking, uses his wits to keep alive and gets quite a few women (considering the views of the time). He always seems to find himself in the centre of intrigue. For those of you that have read the series A Song of Ice and Fire you know full well this could be applied to Tyrion just the same as it could be applied to Leonello. There are a few differences between the characters but I was sort of disappointed in how similar the two were, even if they are both awesome in their own right.
The thing that I liked most about The Serpent and the Pearl is the characters. Carmelina has a fascinating backstory and makes her way into a world traditionally inhabited by men only—being the master chef to powerful men. She’s not your typical Feisty Female that seems to be the requirement in fiction these days so I actually quite enjoyed her point of view. The character that I liked most was, surprisingly, Giulia Farnese. She can be quite a vain, indolent sort of creature but there’s no denying that as the story goes on and she grows up a bit she becomes a force to be reckoned with in Rome. Unlike a lot of heroines she is capable of acting and lying but never really loses her temper with anyone. Considering how she grew up, this is far more believable than the ridiculous obvious Girl Power characters that historical fiction writers try to transform every woman into. Some women are not obviously girl power figures, but Giulia sort of becomes one in a quiet, unique kind of way that fits with her personality.
The plot dragged a little bit in a couple of places, but there weren’t any major slow downs. I did enjoy all of the little historical details Kate Quinn put into her novel, including all the recipes Carmelina used. Some historical figures were portrayed very differently than I was used to (Sancha of Aragon most notably) but others were pleasantly surprising, like Giulia and the Borgia Pope himself. I can’t speak to how historically accurate this novel is, but I definitely felt immersed in the world of Renaissance Italy and the intrigues of Rome.
If you like historical fiction that has a little bit of a different take on traditionally maligned characters, I’d have to recommend The Serpent and the Pearl. It certainly isn’t for everyone but I personally enjoyed it and am looking forward to reading The Lion and the Rose. Especially since Kate Quinn ended the book on such a horrible cliffhanger.
I give this book 4/5 stars.