My lady, Fiammetta Bianchini, was plucking her eyebrows and biting color into her lips when the unthinkable happened and the Holy Roman Emperor's army blew a hole in the wall of God's eternal city, letting in a flood of half-starved, half-crazed troops bent on pillage and punishment.
Thus begins In the Company of the Courtesan, Sarah Dunant's epic novel of life in Renaissance Italy. Escaping the sack of Rome in 1527, with their stomachs churning on the jewels they have swallowed, the courtesan Fiammetta and her dwarf companion, Bucino, head for Venice, the shimmering city born out of water to become a miracle of east-west trade: rich and rancid, pious and profitable, beautiful and squalid.
A story of desire and deception, sin and religion, loyalty and friendship, In the Company of the Courtesan paints a portrait of one of the world's greatest cities at its most potent moment in history: It is a picture that remains vivid long after the final page.
With a mix of courage and cunning they infiltrate Venetian society. Together they make the perfect partnership: the sharp-tongued, sharp-witted dwarf, and his vibrant mistress, trained from birth to charm, entertain, and satisfy men who have the money to support her.
Yet as their fortunes rise, this perfect partnership comes under threat, from the searing passion of a lover who wants more than his allotted nights to the attentions of an admiring Turk in search of human novelties for his sultan's court. But Fiammetta and Bucino's greatest challenge comes from a young crippled woman, a blind healer who insinuates herself into their lives and hearts with devastating consequences for them all.
Having read and loved Birth of Venus, I was really looking forward to getting hold of this book. I picked it up from the library not long after it was released but then it sat on my shelf for three months until I had no choice but to read it as I couldn't extend it any further. I am not really sure that there was a reason why it took me so long to actually get to this, except that other books kept on getting in the way.
Fiammetta is one of the most sought after courtesans in all of Rome, numbering men amongst her clients who are cardinals and politicians amongst many others. However, when she is forced to flee Rome when it is attacked, she ends up taking a few jewels and her companion and pimp, Bucino, with her. She flees to Venice where she will have to start from scratch and try to build up her client base in a new city. Before she can start that she will need to recover from the wounds that she received, and from the months of deprivation that she had to endure as they wandered from one place to another trying to survive. To aid her in her recovery she calls on the services of the renowned La Draga - healer, and possibly witch. The most striking thing about La Draga is her appearance. She is a clever woman stuck inside a twisted body and blind, meaning that the fact that she heals by touch is quite remarkable.
As Fiammetta's body and mind heals, Bucino starts to make plans to put them back in business, for which they must rely on the assistance of one of their former adversaries. And yet, just as it seems that they have achieved their aims, there are divisions between Bucino and Fiametta, betrayal from an unknown source, and broken promises that threaten to destroy the partnerships. In many ways this novel was a study of a time long past, but it was also relevant today as a study of ambition and desire, friendship and love and betrayal.
There was quite a large scope in this novel in terms of the setting and the characters. Set predominantly in Venice, Dunant was able to transport me there most of the time during the novel, bringing back memories of my own time in Venice! (I love it when a book does that!). She vividly bought the colours of the festivals and the traditions of a very proud city without being guilty of info dumping too much.
In terms of the characters, the cast was bold and challenging, using Bucino as the narrator which was quite an interesting choice - I certainly had not given much thought to the ways of courtesans who liked to keep dwarves as pets at times, and yet Bucino was an extremely shrewd and successful businessman. With a passing parade of characters that include one of the most famous artists and a famous wordsmith, I was surprised at how many of the characters seemed real to me.
And yet, having said all of that, I was not completely blown away by this book. It was an entertaining read, and I am glad that I have read it, but if I had to choose between this book and Birth of Venus I would choose the latter every time. I am beginning to think that either my own standards have gotten higher, or I am in a bit of a slump where I am happy to read books but none of them have really captured my imagination in the way that I really want them to. I will have got a few more Sarah Dunant books to track down and read, which I will do eventually, and I will be keeping an eye out for any new books from her.
Rating: A solid 4/5.