Battista della Palla was a real figure from history. He was an art thief, a wheeler dealer, a lifelong friend of Michelangelo, a man of many different facets. He is also the central character in this book. He leads a group of men who all bring their particular skills to finding and acquiring treasures, and also in interpreting the symbolism that is so often hidden in many of the paintings of the time. Generally when he steals, any gain goes towards the cause of freeing Florence - a cause close to his heart.
Battista is a man who loves a challenges. He plans each of his thefts in meticulous detail, not afraid to take the chances he needs to take in order to meet his goal, but also not prepared to put his men, and his own life at any greater risk than he needs to. His interest is piqued when he receives an unusual missive but he has no idea that he is about to begin a quest unlike any other. He infiltrates the home of the Marquess of Mantua thinking that he will find the target item there. Instead, what he finds is a cryptic clue on a parchment, hidden in a room that looks innocent enough but in actual fact is booby trapped. He only escapes thanks to the help of Lady Aurelia.
She is the ward of the Marquess of Mantua, and lives a very sheltered life. What she longs for is adventure and for her, Battista is the key to adventure!
The parchment provides a small clue and that sets Battista and his men, and the Lady Aurelia, on the trail of an obscure triptych. The thing that becomes clear though is that the three pieces are held separately, and that each of the pieces is held in places where there are very dangerous and complex protections in place to stop anyone from finding it. If you are thinking Indiana Jones style quests at this point, then you are on the right track.
Battista and Aurelia must work together to solve the clues, both those in the paintings themselves and those held within the pages of the works of Dante's Divine Comedy. They must face symbolic Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, solve the clues, and find the pieces. In the process we meet some famous faces from history like Michelangelo and Pope Clement, visit some famous places like the Sistine Chapel, face danger, and deal with their growing attachment to each other.
The biggest dilemma for Battista though is can he trust Aurelia? She is a woman with secrets and he knows that she is not being honest with him, but who is she really, and why is she so determined to be involved in the search for the three parts of the triptych? As a reader, I liked Aurelia, but despite the fact that I only finished the book a few hours ago, don't ask me to explain what her big secret role was.
When I was offered this book, I looked through the blurb and mentally ticked off several boxes for things I like in a book! Renaissance setting - check! Art History - check! Dante - check! (One of my favourite HF reads of the last few years has a Dante connection so I was happy to revisit this). Throw in secret brotherhoods (check) and I would be a happy reader. Sounds all good, right?
Unfortunately, there were a few things that would have made me rethink that if I had of known them at the time. This book is really a cross between a novel and the expanded story behind a computer game. The author freely admits this in the notes where she talks about her love for the game Princess Zelda. The quest that our characters go on therefore consists of find a clue, travel to a distant location, follow the path, find the key to open the gate/door, follow the path, dodge the shooting flames/rolling giant marbles/find your way through the maze etc etc before the final test to determine your worthiness to claim the prize and then barely escape. Rinse and repeat.
It's not really a technique that I enjoy at the best of times, and it really didn't work for me in this book. On of the other things that didn't really work for me was the reliance on the knowledge of Dante's work. Whilst I vaguely know enough, I wasn't familiar enough to see the clues. If you are more familiar with the Divine Comedy you may find it more interesting to follow the clues.
I am not sure if it was these factors that made this a very slow read for me, but it felt like it took me forever to get through it. It really was only a few days, but I could have sworn it was longer.
I must mention the author's notes which I thought were excellent. Donna Russo Morin gives us information about the real people in the book, about her inspiration, about the art in the book and more and the book also included a reading guide.
Ultimately, this book didn't work for me on many levels. If you check the reviews on places like Goodreads you will see that there are plenty of people who loved it
"Russo Morin skillfully blends historical fiction and fantasy in surprising ways. She draws effortlessly upon influences ranging from Dante to Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the authority of her presentation makes the world she’s created come alive. A wonderfully action-packed ride through the lush landscape of Renaissance Italy." Starred Review, Publishers WeeklyReview originally posted at Historical Tapestry as part of a blog tour run by Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours
The King’s Agent is based loosely on the life of Battista della Palla-a patriotic plunderer, a religious rogue-of the 16th century, a lifelong friend to the great Michelangelo.
As the cloistered ward of the Marquess of Mantua, Lady Aurelia is a woman with a profound duty, and a longing for adventure. In search of a relic intended for the King of France, Battista and Aurelia cross the breathtaking landscape of Renaissance Italy. Clues hide in great works of art, political forces collide, secret societies and enemies abound, and danger lurks in every challenge, those that mirror the passages of Dante's Divine Comedy. It is an adventurous quest with undercurrents of the supernatural, powers that could change the balance of supremacy throughout Europe.