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Scarlet Contessa by Jeanne Kalogridis

Renaissance Italy comes alive under the spell created by Jeanne Kalogridis in The Scarlet Contessa. In fact, the back cover of the book proclaims, “What Philippa Gregory has done for Tudor England, Jeanne Kalogridis does for Renaissance Italy.”

Daughter of the Duke of Milan and wife of the conniving Count Girolamo Riario, Caterina Sforza was the bravest warrior Renaissance Italy ever knew. She ruled her own lands, fought her own battles, and openly took lovers whenever she pleased.

Her remarkable tale is told by her lady-in-waiting, Dea, a woman knowledgeable in reading the “triumph cards,” the predecessor of modern-day Tarot. As Dea tries to unravel the truth about her husband’s murder, Caterina single-handedly holds off invaders who would steal her title and lands. However, Dea’s reading of the cards reveals Caterina cannot withstand a third and final invader, none other than Cesare Borgia, son of the corrupt Pope Alexander VI, who has an old score to settle with Caterina.  Trapped inside the Fortress at Ravaldino as Borgia’s cannons pound the
walls, Dea reviews Caterina’s scandalous past and struggles to understand their joint destiny, while Caterina valiantly tries to fight off Borgia’s unconquerable army.

From the time we meet Dea, to the very end, she is an interesting character who allows us to see the often annoying Caterina in a very human light. There is nothing perfect about the imperious Caterina, unless it’s her beauty. She uses and abuses people and certainly is not overly kind to the long-suffering Dea. However, she does have grit enough for five women and she needed it to survive the tribulations she suffered, often brought on by her own conduct. To be fair, Caterina was little more than a child when she was married off to a brute. In spite of his drawbacks, it was this husband who paved the way for Caterina’s true destiny as a brave warrior. It would be her passions, make that lusts, and her ambitions, that paved her downfall.

Dea has been saved from a marriage to a brute by a marriage to a gentle man who never consummates their marriage. It is only after his death that Dea learns the reason. Eventually she finds love with a good man, Luca, and he is her salvation.

The characters in this novel are compelling and realistic, the fictional ones sprinkled among real-life ones that Kalogridis has obviously closely studied. Anyone who likes historical fiction will find much to commend in this novel.

~Ginny

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