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Originally published Sunday, July 14, 2013 at 5:01 AM

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Sarah Dunant’s ‘Blood & Beauty’: tales of the Borgias

Sarah Dunant’s gripping new historical novel “Blood & Beauty” tells the story of the Borgias, the family that used sex, politics and religion to dominate Renaissance Italy.

Special to The Seattle Times

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‘Blood & Beauty: The Borgias’

by Sarah Dunant

Random House, 506 pp., $27

What more can be said about the infamous but fascinating Borgia dynasty? The answer seems to be a lot. British author Sarah Dunant, known for her three novels (“The Birth of Venus,” “In the Company of the Courtesan” and “Sacred Hearts”) set in the Italian Renaissance, has centered her new work “Blood & Beauty: The Borgias” on this legendary family, which lived, loved and schemed during the same period. Dunant offers a gripping tale of lust, greed and brutality that spans nearly a decade.

It is the summer of 1492, a time when Italy is still a conglomeration of city-states governed by family dynasties in a near conflict with each other. Amid much maneuvering and intrigue in Rome, the seat of the papacy, Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, a cunning, robust man, is elected Pope. Upon assuming the title, he takes the name Alexander VI.

A Spaniard, Pope Alexander and his brood are looked upon with suspicion by many Italians. As the patriarch of a close-knit family, he dotes on his four illegitimate children. But in his quest for power and wealth, he also uses them as pawns for political advantage.

His ruthlessness is matched by that of his eldest son, Cesare — dynamic, handsome and calculating, a cardinal turned soldier who will stop at nothing to get what he wants. He’s implicated in the murder of his brother Juan and is known to be overly fond of his sister Lucrezia. A notorious womanizer, Cesare is thought to be suffering from the “French disease,” or syphilis.

Lucrezia, an innocent girl barely in her teens, matures into a gentle, beautiful and intelligent woman. Tragically, she finds herself being manipulated by both Alexander and Cesare.

What makes Dunant popular as a historical novelist is her ability to maintain an illusion of reality, making her readers believe that this is how people lived and that these events took place. Her fluid writing style also helps sustain this illusion. Research is another strong suit — well-chosen facts that breathe life into the story. In “Blood & Beauty,” she creates a lush stage by providing period details of food, rituals and clothing, then uses dazzling prose to put larger-than-life characters into it.

Compelling female players have been a characteristic of Dunant’s earlier novels, (such as “Sacred Hearts”) and this new offering is no exception. A woman of deep faith, Lucrezia willingly sacrifices her own happiness to fulfill the wishes of her elders. Yet she has a mind of her own. At one point, when conditions become unbearable, she disobeys her father by storming out of the palace and seeking temporary sanctuary in a convent.

Another achievement for Dunant is her ability to re-imagine history. Although the Borgias are often called the most notorious family in Italian Renaissance (as viewers of the recent HBO series can attest), Dunant manages to show different facets of their personalities. If history has left some blanks in this regard, Dunant fills them. The members of this close-knit family emerge as dynamic characters, flawed but sympathetic, filled with fear and longing, and believable. The result is that even 500 or so pages don’t cover all their exploits.

By the time we reach the last page, we’re involved enough to ask the question: What’s in store for this family, in particular for Cesare and Lucrezia? Happily, in the historical epilogue, Dunant promises a sequel.

Bharti Kirchner’s latest novel is “Tulip Season: A Mitra Basu Mystery.”

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