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August 3, 2010

Sara Poole: POISON

Posted by Dana

Rarely is a human being solely a hero or a villian. No matter how they are characterized in history, most are human and therefore complex. In today's guest post, author Sara Poole talks about her new book POISON and it's more in depth look at one of the most powerful and nefarious families of the Renaissance period.   If your book club loves historical fiction, I suspect there will be much to chat about with this one!

poison.jpgMy new novel, POISON is the story of a young woman, Francesca Giordano, haunted by the demons of her past, who is driven to strike a deadly bargain with the most infamous family of her time, the Borgias.

Determined to avenge the murder of her father, Francesca succeeds to his position as poisoner serving the House of Borgia by killing the man selected to take his place.  In doing so, she puts herself dangerously at odds with Rodrigo Borgia, soon to become Pope Alexander VI.  Persuaded that she can be of use to him, the ambitious cardinal forgives her in return for her assistance in a plan to kill the reigning pope, the corrupt and perverse Innocent VIII, and assure that Borgia takes his place.

When I started research for POISON, I thought I had a fairly good take on who the Borgias were and why they merited their dark reputation.  The novelist Mario Puzo, of “Godfather” fame, seemed to have summed them up best when he called them history’s first crime family.  But the more I learned about them, the more I realized that the Borgias were far more complex than I suspected.  Like it or not, I had to get beyond centuries of slander and vilification to find the people they really were.

It is a truism that history is written by the winners at the expense of the losers.  That was never more the case than when it came to the struggle for control of the papacy that raged for centuries during the Renaissance.  For a time, no one seemed better equipped to win that struggle than the Borgias, the family that had emerged from Valencia, Spain only a few decades before to reach the pinnacle of power in Rome.

Loyal only to each other, willing to go to virtually any ends to defeat an enemy, the Borgias sought wealth and power on an unprecedented scale.  Had they been merely venal and greedy, as they have been portrayed, they would have been dangerous enough.  But they nurtured a vision for Christendom that threatened the power of every other prelate in the Church and every royal house in Europe.  The Borgias saw themselves as the founders of a dynasty that, ruling through the power of the Catholic Church, would unite all of Europe under their control.  At a time when the world was being rocked by the upheaval that we know as the Renaissance,  they were an intolerable threat to the forces of conservatism already desperate to maintain the status quo.

The alarm they raised was so profound that when the most corrupt papal conclave in history enabled Rodrigo Borgia to buy his way to the papacy, one of the most powerful prelates in Rome warned that the Church had fallen into the grip of a wolf who would devour them all.   With those words, he summed up the fear that consumed the great houses unable to thwart the rise of the family that believed itself destined to rule over all.

Under such circumstances, I suppose it really wasn’t surprising that the Borgias’ enemies resorted to accusing them of everything from incest and wholesale murder to trafficking with the Devil. Make no mistake, the Borgias were no angels but neither is there a shred of evidence to suggest they were actually guilty of most of the crimes of which they have been accused.  To the contrary, beneath the layers of rumor and slander, we can still glimpse the truth about a bold, daring family unafraid to stand atop the tide of history.

Their real crime was to envision a world freed of medieval superstition and ignorance, reborn in the light of classical learning and reason, and united under the leadership of those they saw as best equipped to guide it--themselves. For the sin of arrogance, they were driven from the stage of history.  Yet they linger still, tantalizing us with glimpses of what might have been.
So who were the Borgias really? As you read POISON , I hope you’ll find the portrayal of them more believable than the caricature bequeathed to us by their enemies.  And I hope you’ll enjoy meeting Francesca, a woman who is more than their match, and whose story will continue in future books.

-- Sara Poole, Author (