Okay, City of God by Cecelia Holland is a book I'd meant to read ages and ages ago, but have only just managed to finish. I do have a soft spot for historical fiction, and to be quite honest, I went into this one expecting more than what I got out of it.
The setting's great – Rome during the reign of the Borgias, and Holland does a passable job showing us the day-to-day workings of the ancient city. Our viewpoint character is one Nicholas Dawson, an Englishman whose ex-pat parents died in Spain, where he was raised in a monastery. Somehow, he attached himself to the Florentine ambassador, where he has a nose for intrigue.
And intrigue there is aplenty in Rome, when Nicholas gets tangled in the schemes of Valentino, who has a mad scheme to unite the Italian city states under one crown. Plus we have the meddlesome Spanish and French.
Nicholas as a character is incredibly bland, and I struggled to even like him. I don't know whether Holland has merely written him as someone who suffers great disconnect with his own emotions on purpose, or if she didn't do a good job to dig a little deeper with character development. Either way, I guess it doesn't really matter. Nicholas comes across a bit like a limp fish, a man of little power and great ambition, who overreaches himself amid the power struggles of his betters ... Or rather I wouldn't even say they're his betters, because everyone in this novel is awful in one way or another, and they all do awful things.
Dear Nicholas's attempts at stringing a web of his own are rather dismal too, and while he struggles along, it's clear things are going to get worse before they're going to get better.
I wanted to like this story, and it had its moments when it held my interest, because I really do love the time period, but I need to have my emotions engaged. The prose all felt very workmanlike, with Nicholas carried along as more of an observer rather than an active participant. In addition, I'm not quite sure whether the proofreader was asleep, but there were quite a few obvious typos – the kind someone would make if they were typing out this entire document from a physical copy ... or using type recognition software but then they just didn't quite get round to employing a human proofreader afterwards. Considering that this novel was first published in 1979, this may very well be the case, which is a pity. And hells, I'll say it again: chapters and scene breaks WOULD BE LOVELY.
I've seen Holland compared to the likes of Mary Renault ... but I feel with this novel in particular that there just isn't the spark or the lushness and regal poise that Renault's writing has. Or perhaps it's just Nicholas, and therein lies the rub. The Englishman isn't exactly the most effervescent individual, and the character does the story no favours.