Review: In the Name of the Family

In the Name of the Family is the latest novel from historical fiction extraordinaire Sarah Dunant.

It takes place in Renaissance Italy, is packed with intrigue and deception, and has a cracking cast of familiar but reimagined characters. What’s not to love?

What’s it all about?

Here’s the blurb from the publisher:

1502 and Renaissance Italy is in turmoil. Backed by the money and wily power of his ageing father Pope Alexander VI, Cesare Borgia is soaring like a military comet, carving out a state for the Borgia dynasty. From Florence, a young diplomat, one Niccolo Machiavelli, is sent to shadow him to keep track of the danger. While many tremble in the presence of this brilliant unscrupulous man, Machiavelli is entranced and the relationship he forges with Cesare allows him – and us – to witness history in the making.

Meanwhile, the Pope’s beloved daughter Lucrezia is on her way to a third dynastic marriage in the state of Ferrara, where if she is to survive she must fast produce an heir for the rival Este family. Cesare holds his sister dear, but striving always for conquest rather than conciliation, he pays little mind to her precarious position. As the Borgia enemies gather, in Rome, the pope grows older and ever more cantankerous.

What’s good about it?

Fans of historical fiction will devour this book. Dunant is a master of bringing the past to life in absorbing, complex worlds. Her prose is brimming with historical detail – intricate descriptions of clothing, etiquette, foods and palaces firmly set this book in a time and place that is very well developed. Dunant must put hours of research into crafting her novels to get the narrative to feel so authentic.

I had a sense of familiarity when reading this book that I wasn’t expecting. Firstly, because Florence is one of my favourite cities (I’ve been three times and fully intend to go back) I could picture the streets and piazzas Dunant describes in In the Name of the Family. Having walked those streets and seen those monuments really grounded me in story, and I felt an added attachment to the places it took me. The depiction of Rome is equally absorbing.

The characters are also well known. The Borgias and Machiavelli are infamous historic characters, and Dunant gives us a glimpse of their motives, actions and origins. Lucrezia is a particularly interesting character, and her experience as a woman contrasts poignantly with those of the men she has to challenge and outwit.

What’s not so good about it?

This is a long and detailed book – that might put off some readers but it’s the same reason others will adore it.

In the Name of the Family is a solid piece of historical fiction with the ability to engross readers completely into the world of Renaissance Florence and Rome. It offers the chance to get close to an infamous family and schemer, and be absorbed by the luxury of 15th century Italian court.

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