Ariosto Furioso: A Romance for an Alternative Renaissance
This was a strange one. My policy of buying books by their covers usually works, but not this time. I haven’t read any of Yarbro’s books before, although her Count of Saint-Germain series has loitered tantalisingly at the edge of my mind for some time. When Goodreads recommended me her Renaissance fantasy about the poet Ludovico Ariosto, I was intrigued: the cover art caught my eye, and I eventually tracked down a copy of this edition in the US.
Unfortunately it was a disappointment (as I would have been able to predict, had I checked the scathing LibraryThing reviews first). Partly that’s because I’m a pedant and know too much about this period to be happy about unconvincing artistic licence. But partly it’s just because it isn’t a very good novel. It isn’t screamingly badly written, or offensive: it just doesn’t have much of a point to it.
In the ‘real world’, Ariosto leads the thankless and financially-constrained life of a court poet, working in Firenze for il Primàrio, Damiano de’ Medici, son of Piero and grandson of Lorenzo. Rarely paid, with a wife and son to maintain and clothes tending towards the ragged, he watches with envy as more urbane courtiers, like Damiano’s secretary Andrea Benci, sail smoothly through the world of politics. This is Italia Federata, a confederacy of states led by Firenze, which has overcome the squabbling and division of its petty past and has united into a superpower capable of treating with the greatest forces of the world. Yet in Ariosto’s fantasies – and in the new book he’s writing as a sequel to his great Orlando – he’s cut from very different cloth.
There, in his imagination, he becomes the mighty Ariosto: a fearsome warrior who has been sent to the New World, to Nuova Genova, as Damiano’s ambassador to the fabulous people of the Cérocchi. Riding his splendid steed, the hippogriff Bellimbusto, Ariosto is welcomed by the Cérocchi as a hero – and he realises he has arrived just in time, for these good people are troubled by a fearsome enemy, the powerful sorcerer Anatrecacciatore. With warriors of flint and frost, this evil wizard seeks to dominate the whole of the New World and, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the valiant Cérocchi prince Falcone, Ariosto is the only man who can lead the forces of good to victory. In dreams, therefore, Ariosto knows exactly what he must do to ensure the triumph of the ‘right’ side.
But in reality, as little more than a poetic drudge, he finds himself increasingly troubled. As the book opens, an embassy from England comes to Damiano: Thomas More, the king’s representative, troubled by his master’s recent unlawful marriage to Anne Boleyn. But More’s presence acts as the gadfly that stings the lesser partners of Italia Federata into life, straining against what they perceive as Damiano’s tyranny over them. And as time goes on, Ariosto realises that there is a traitor in their midst: someone striving to ruin Damiano’s currency with his fellow leaders, and to drag Italia Federata down into its quailing death-throes.
Part of my problem with the book is that I had a preconceived idea of what Ariosto’s ‘reality’ was. I’d been looking forward to a blend of historical fiction and fantasy, perhaps in alternating chapters, which I thought was a rather innovative way to write. Instead this was pure fantasy without much of an effort to acknowledge historical fact. I didn’t quite understand why Yarbro felt the need to relocate him from Ferrara, where he actually worked, to Florence – save perhaps that she felt Ferrara wasn’t famous enough to be the leading state of a united Italy. Florence is best known; and everyone knows the Medici; and so Ariosto is transplanted, with only vague references to a previous service with Lucrezia Borgia, Duchess of Ferrara, and no explanation of how he came to Florence. I was (perhaps unreasonably) irritated by the fact that even this ‘reality’ isn’t real: it’s just another level of fantasy, an alternative history where much is different but conveniently all the famous people still exist to be referred to.
For most of the book we’re not even given a clear idea of why the world is like this. There are glimpses here and there: in this world, Richard III was a respected king of England who, grieving over the murder of his nephews, eventually makes the pretender Henry Tudor his heir, and secures peace for his war-torn country. In this world, Lorenzo the Magnificent expelled Savonarola from Florence before he become too troublesome, and the vehement monk has been gathering followers in Germany instead, where they have been sparring with the Lutherans. Spain is under interdict from the Pope and the first settlements in the New World have been made by Genoa, not the Spanish. I was interested in these offhand references and wanted to know more, but we never really got to understand the basis of this skewed ‘reality’ which we were asked to accept.
The reality itself was so fantastical that the extra fantasy of Ariosto’s dreams lost its charm and impact. It felt as though the author wanted to have some kind of historical fiction basis but just couldn’t be troubled with research and so picked famous names from here and there to create a Renaissance that better suited her purposes.
The fantasy, too, fell flat for me. Initially I was excited by it: there’s a genre of fanfiction known as ‘Mary Sue’, where the main character is the author’s invention and is unbelievably perfect and admired by everyone (often said character is wish-fulfilment on the part of the author). I was amused at the thought that even someone as poetically brilliant as Ariosto might want to put himself into his stories. But the problem with this sort of thing is that it quickly grows tired. Before long I was bored of hearing how tall and handsome Ariosto was, and how beautifully his beard curled, and how his Order of San Basilio glinted in the sun, and how everything he said was deeply wise, and how everyone admired him, and how valiant he was…
I just wanted something to happen! But, for the amount of space devoted to it, very little did happen; it grew increasingly dull; and the conclusion of both storylines, in ‘reality’ and ‘fantasy’, was both abrupt and extremely anticlimactic. I hate finishing a book with a deflated feeling of, “Oh. Is that is? Well… what happens then?” It also felt precious to have all the Italian towns and cities called by their Italian names, and in fact the use of Italian throughout the book was a problem to me, because it often grated. There were also small things, such as the translation of Anatrecacciatore’s name, given here as ‘Duck-Catcher’. That’s actually not really true: a better translation is ‘Duck-Hunter’ or ‘Duck-Chaser’. That fits much better with Yarbro’s conceit that he has no power over ducks, which turn out to be one of the keys to engaging him fairly in battle. Yes, I’m fully aware that this is a pedant’s response, but it made the book feel clumsy.
Maybe I’ve totally missed the point and this is a very clever send-up of a certain type of fiction, but taken as a book on its own terms I just couldn’t warm to it. I had trouble caring about the characters, especially Ariosto’s perfect, swaggering alter ego; I was annoyed by the historical setting; and I thought it pretty obvious who Damiano’s traitor was, so there wasn’t even much tension. All in all, a distinctly damp squib.