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Leonardo's Swans: A Novel Hardcover – January 10, 2006

4.0 out of 5 stars 70 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

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.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

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
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 340 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday (January 10, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385517068
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385517065
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.1 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (70 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,596,738 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By C. W. Gortner VINE VOICE on June 5, 2006
Format: Hardcover
(This review first appeared in the May 2006 issue of The Historical Novels Review, Editor's Choice)

Leonardo da Vinci has become quite popular these days, as has the historical novel featuring an intrepid woman ahead of her time, with an abiding interest in Art. Doubleday is clearly capitalizing on these facts in marketing Karen Essex's novel, LEONARDO'S SWANS. The strategy will undoubtedly sell books, but it does not begin to do justice to Essex's haunting account of the sibling rivalry between two princesses of the Renaissance--Isabella d'Este, Duchess of Mantua, and her younger sister, Beatrice, wife of Il Moro, Duke of Milan. Told from the eyes of both sisters, the novel starts with deceptive superficiality, as the elegantly adept Isabella engages in a competitive battle for supremacy with the wilder and less intellectually accomplished Beatrice. Through a mere matter of poor timing, Beatrice has wed a more powerful and intellectually stimulating man--an event that perplexes Isabella, for how can the vagaries of fortune have allowed someone of Beatrice's pedestrian aspirations to seize the prize that is Milan? Moreover, Milan commands the genius of Leonardo da Vinci, acclaimed court painter and engineer to Il Moro. Determined to outshine her sister, Isabella sets herself to be immortalized by Leonardo's brush, while Beatrice steers a resolute course to wealth and power. But larger political concerns soon overwhelm the oblivious self-aggrandizement and foibles of these Renaissance sisters. Both are tested to their limits and beyond, compelled to discover an inner strength that will ultimately exalt one and destroy the other.
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Format: Hardcover
Since the beginning of recorded history, and undoubtedly prior to that, sex and politics have always been intertwined. Throw art, the quest for fame and immortality, and sibling rivalry into the mix, and you have the ingredients of Leonardo's Swans, a novel about the intense and treacherous court of Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, the patron under whom Leonardo da Vinci created most of his important works. The story is mainly about two aristocratic sisters, Beatrice and Isabella d'Este, the latter of whom became the major art collector of her day. Beatrice married the Duke of Milan, but Isabella always felt that Beatrice had stolen her fate. To compensate, Isabella was determined to have herself immortalized in oil by the great Leonardo da Vinci. But Beatrice, who was aware that Isabella had designs on her husband too, had other plans for her sister. This is a rivalry literally to the death between two women who basically love each other, but who have been pitted against each other by their own need for the attentions of the most powerful men in the courts of Europe and by the political ambitions of their husbands and father. Leonardo da Vinci is the prize at the end of their quest, but the artist proves to be even more elusive than power itself. This is a pretty wild ride of a story, but at the end, in the author's notes, you find out that it's all true! The characters in the book really are the women in Leonardo's paintings. The notes at the end even tell you where to go to see the originals.

By the way, I am an architect, and I really enjoyed the detailed and accurate descriptions of the churches, palaces, and monuments of the period. I've always felt that Milan's historic architecture has taken a back seat to Florence for far too long.
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After I read Karen Essex's latest novel Stealing Athena: A Novel I was convinced to go on and read the rest of her novels. I already had "Leonardo's Swans" which had been lingering in my book stack for quite a while so I picked it up.

I realize that this is an award winning, highly acclaimed novel and therefore this won't be the most popular review but I just didn't like this book. The story has the potential to be fascinating it's true-rival sisters fighting over prestige, art and husbands, wars that created revolutionary alliances among the Italians, and of course, Leonardo de Vinci. But for some reason I could never get drawn into this book and had to fight to finish pages and continue on. Eventually it became a battle and halfway through I surrendered.

Maybe it got better after that, I don't know. But for some reason this just didn't grab me. Since I know Essex is an amazing writer I suppose that it's a question to taste- but her style was so different in "Stealing Athena" that I could never adjust to the writing in this.

There was on thing I really did love about this book. The relationship between Isabella and Beatrice d'Este is really, really realistic. Though they do harbor jealousy for each other, begrudge each other nice things, and fight, they also stick up for each other and don't want the other to be hurt. It's the most honest sibling portrayal I've ever seen in a book and for that Essex should be commended.

Other than that-I just didn't like this book. But that doesn't mean you won't. So I won't recommend or not recommend for this one. Read a lot of reviews and figure it out for yourself.

Two stars.
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