From Publishers Weekly
Sexual and political intrigue drive Essex's intricate novel (after previous historicals Kleopatra and Pharaoh) starring 15th-century Italian sisters Isabella and Beatrice d'Este. Isabella, the elder, more accomplished sister, is engaged to handsome Francesco Gonzaga, a minor aristocrat, while Beatrice is intended for the future duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, who's powerful, unscrupulous and already in possession of a pregnant mistress. It seems, at first, that Isabella will enjoy domesticity with Francesco, while unhappy Beatrice is useful to her husband only as a vehicle for breeding sons—a situation further complicated by Ludovico's infatuation with the more beautiful Isabella. While Isabella encourages her brother-in-law's overtures, she's actually desperate to sit for his resident artist, Leonardo da Vinci. The sisters' sexual rivalry provides the main fodder for the novel's first half; the less compelling remainder is taken up with the political complexities of Renaissance Italy, as the rulers of France scheme to invade Italy, Francesco schemes against Ludovico, and Ludovico schemes against everyone. Essex's canvas is too finely detailed to adequately represent the epic dramas of warring Italian princes, and occasional anachronisms in diction are distracting. But the stories of Isabella and Beatrice d'Este along with the occasional investigations of Leonardo's artworks, methods and personality are always engrossing. (Jan.)
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At the heart of this involving novel are Isabella and Beatrice d'Este, two sisters separated by only a year, but wildly different in terms of personality. Stunning, ambitious Isabella is married to handsome Francesco Gonzaga, a brilliant warrior, but it is Beatrice who makes a better match when she weds the powerful Ludovico Sforza, a ruthless Milanese leader with his eye on the duchy and political power in Italy. Beatrice wants nothing more than for Ludovico, who is smitten with his mistress Cecilia, to love her; but he seems more taken with Isabella. Isabella hopes to use Ludovico's desire for her to obtain her a sitting with Ludovico's court painter, the renowned Leonard da Vinci. After a fall during a hunting expedition, Beatrice finally wins her husband's love, while Isabella envies her sister her luxurious lifestyle. But Ludovico's lusts and political maneuverings end up costing both women dearly. With lush, colorful descriptions, Essex brings to life the Sforza court and the competitive d'Este sisters'complex relationships with each other, their husbands, and Leonardo. Powerful historical fiction. Kristine Huntley
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