Charming, cruel

As Hilary Mantel is to early Protestantism intrigue, Sarah Dunant is to the court of the Borgia Popes.

The Guardian’s Christobel Kent is beguiled by Sarah Dunant's Borgia saga of duplicity, charm and cruelty in 15th-century Rome.

Who would be a historical novelist of calibre and ambition, while the great glittering caravan of Hilary Mantel's Tudor trilogy is still passing? Sarah Dunant's Blood and Beauty, the fourth of her Italian historical novels and the initial instalment in what is planned to be a two-part saga, is her first since Mantel's colossal success.

By taking on the brutal and notorious Borgia dynasty, which even 50 years before Henry VIII's birth had Italy by the scruff of the neck, Dunant might be seen to be putting her subject in the ring with Cromwell – but it should be said straight away that this is a different sort of book.

Neither oblique nor experimental, it has a great deal more in common with Maurice Druon's brilliantly gripping series from the 1950s, The Accursed Kings (about to be reissued with the tagline  The Original Game of Thrones), than with Mantel, and is hugely enjoyable for it.

Dunant raises the curtain on Rodrigo Borgia's election as Pope Alexander VI in 1492: through the Borgias' trademark guile, charm and cruelty he has claimed for himself the most powerful position on earth.

He also openly maintains a household of four illegitimate children by Vannozza dei Catanei – among them the infamous Lucrezia, still a child but already being haggled over by rival dynasties – and a new and beautiful mistress.

This is the Italy of Michelangelo and Pinturicchio: in Ferrara, Bembo is writing sonnets, and in Milan, Leonardo is modelling his doomed sculpture of Francesco Sforza.

But it is also the turbulent land of Savonarola and Machiavelli; the incubator of syphilis and the birthplace of the siege engine, an agglomeration of rival dukedoms, principalities and republics that encompasses some of the most viciously disputed territory in man's history.

In the 10 years covered by Blood and Beauty, Borgia Rome has to negotiate with the armies of the French king Charles VIII, and the great ruling families of divided Italy – "a sack of spatting cats that has learned nothing from the past" – through diplomacy and marriage, poison and charm. At the same time, Alexander has to manage his own unruly household: treacherous servants, a dangerously passionate daughter, and wilful, warring sons, trained from birth to fight their way to power.

From the outset Dunant takes possession of her sprawling, unwieldy material. She sets up a resonant dynamic between the political – the dangerous machinations of the papal conclave - and the domestic…

• Christobel Kent's A Darkness Descending is published by Atlantic.

Full review:  http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/may/02/blood-beauty-sarah-dunant-review

Wikipedia on Sarah Dunant: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sarah_Dunant

Publication of Blood and Beauty is expected next month. Preorder this book: http://johngarratt.com.au/index.php/affiliatelist?id=70&affiliateid=8

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