Thursday, November 22, 2012
100 Books #111 - Jeanne Kalogridis' THE SCARLET CONTESSA
Let me take a moment to observe, very gratefully, that this has got to be one of the most misleading book covers I've encountered in quite a while. Sing hosannah! When I got a proper look at it, I felt I'd made a dreadful mistake and ordered some ridiculous softcore porn "romance" novel that was only sort of about Caterina Sforza, badass military bee-hatch of the Italian Renaissance.
Whew! Especially since The Scarlet Contessa seemed to be the only novel -- indeed, the only book -- devoted to Sforza that I could find after wondering what the hell kind of possibly-just-anachronistic-but-wouldn't-it-be-awesome-if-not hot chick in armor riding with the "bad" guys Gina McKee was supposed to be in The Borgias.
For a lot of the novel, though, Caterina is barely present. Much in the way Diana Paxon's The White Raven told the legend of Tristan and Isolde/Iseult from the point of view of the princess' maidservant, The Scarlet Contessa is mostly about Caterina's lady-in-waiting, Dea, a woman of even more dubious origins than Caterina (Caterina was a Duke's bastard daughter, but Renaissance Italy didn't make as big a deal about that as some cultures. As might be expected of a place and a time in which a supposedly celebate Pope made his son the commander of the papal armies and stuff) and who has a preternatural gift for reading Tarot cards. Which means the first third of the book is pretty much a giant foreshadowing yawn fest.
I guess I should have taken our lady-in-waiting's name -- Dea means "goddess" I do believe -- as a warning. There isn't quite enough supernatural/magical claptrap to make this a fantasy novel, but it comes awfully close. Dea inherited her murdered mother's "gift" with the Tarot, which gift seems to involve her not only reading the cards but also projecting herself bodily into their images (i.e. almost getting hit by falling masonry from the Tower card, which comes up over and over to make sure we Get It). In addition, Dea performs rituals to "find her angel" in the best New Agey bulldada tradition. This goes on for ages and pages until the non-New Age reader wants to Throw Up.
And of course everything Dea's Tarot cards predict Comes True. Quite literally. So, e.g., when the Two of Cups turns up in a reading, the promised lover shows up with a gift of two golden goblets. And of course Caterina -- remember, this is sort of supposed to maybe be a novel about Caterina? -- here presented as the most spoiled young woman ever, must have Dea by her side at all times so she can get a reading whenever she wishes. Huh what?
In the "further reading" section at the end of this book is a short -- unpardonably short! -- list of books that contain more information about the Lady of Forli, none of which are recent at all and so are most likely out of print. Sing hosannah I live in the Age of the Internet and can track down copies of those with relative ease, because if there's one thing I want to do after reading this book, it's read a better book about this fascinating woman.
I wish Jean Plaidy had written about her.