Lolly's Library (Dork Kettle)'s Reviews > Sins of the House of Borgia

Sins of the House of Borgia by Sarah Bower
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May 23, 2011

it was ok
bookshelves: historical-fiction
Read from May 13 to 20, 2011 — I own a copy

If I had to use only one word to describe this book, that word would be 'laborious'. That word doesn't refer to the effort which went into writing this tome, which I'm sure was laborious on Sarah Bower's part. No, laborious refers to the effort which I went through in order to slog through the book. Reading it was like pedaling a bicycle in low gear on a flat road: you work and work and work, spinning your feet furiously, only to find you've moved five feet. I would read and read and read and five pages later the story would've barely progressed.

The story at the heart of this novel is in itself very thin. Basically it revolves around the main character, Esther/Donata/Violante, as she slowly (excruciatingly slowly) grows wiser about the world around her, namely the goings-on in the court of Lucrezia Borgia, the illegitimate daughter of Pope Alexander VI. The one thing for which I can give credit to Bower is that the story is told from the point of view of a converso, a Jew who has converted to Christianity as a result of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Esther, now known as Donata, comes to Lucrezia's household as a lady-in-waiting and immediately becomes entranced by Lucrezia's brother, Cesare. And this is where the story takes a downward turn. Though Esther/Donata (who by this time has acquired the 'La Violante' nickname from Cesare) has a minimal amount of contact with Cesare, is kissed by him once and immediately forgotten, we are treated to raptures from her as she waxes on (and on and on ad nauseam) about "her dark lover" Cesare. From there, the story becomes tedious and, frankly, rather dreadful as we watch Esther ruin her life with her delusions of her love for Cesare and his reciprocating feelings (or so she feverishly imagines). Even after he finally has sex with her, leaving her scarred with a venereal disease and, not incidentally, knocked up, pretty much treating her like a common whore, she continues to rhapsodize over his charms, his kindness and gentleness, and how life will become as sweet as ambrosia once Cesare returns to her, even though the man has repeatedly told her that he won't ever, ever be with her in the way she desires. EVER. Throughout most of the book, I repeatedly had to fight back my gag reflex.

None of the characters were remotely likable or even that well-drawn. Each one is a paper doll cut-out, able to be summed up in very broad and cliched terms. Cesare's a malicious brute who still manages to make Esther fall at his feet even as he treats her with casual cruelty; Lucrezia's a temperamental, slightly bipolar, manipulative shrew who comes off like a Renaissance Jabba the Hutt; Esther's best friend and fellow lady's maid, Angela, is a cold, calculating, shallow whore who spreads her legs for the most handsome man, but then abandons him at the slightest sign of trouble. And of course Esther herself is a delusional twit, with a bovine intelligence and similar sense of self-preservation; she has no depth or spirit, no opinion, no real purpose or drive throughout the novel other than to be with her "lover," Cesare. The only character who seemed truly fleshed-out and likable, a Jewish goldsmith named Gideon, came three-quarters of the way through the novel, and by that time I was so fed up with the book that I was past caring enough to truly appreciate Gideon. (I had begun to skim through the book around the halfway point; I just wanted to get it read and done with.)

As far as the sins of the Borgias, yes, there are a few, but they're certainly not the main focus of the novel. (There are a couple of titillating lesbian scenes between Esther and Angela as they assuage their lusts with each other when no men are handy; those scenes served no other purpose than to shock and awe and make sure we knew how "sinful" the Borgias were and how easily their decadence managed to corrupt those around them. And, of course, Bower has chosen to use the biggest Borgia sin of all, (view spoiler)) Instead, the sins and the Borgias themselves are merely set pieces for Esther to interact with as she builds up her fantasy world. This is the filler, this is the page upon page of minutiae I had to wade through as I followed Esther's tale, numerous details laying out the day-to-day life of the Borgias, their adjuncts, their friends and enemies. To be sure, richly described and reasonably well-crafted filler, yet filler nonetheless: The court traveled here and did this day upon day, with this dress and those shoes; the court then traveled here and did this day upon day, now wearing that dress and these shoes. It's obvious Bower researched and researched exhaustively, even if she did flub a couple of things. (She mentions the iron maiden, a device for which the earliest mention only dates back to circa 1793; the Iron Maiden as we're aware of it was more the product of a fevered Victorian imagination than that of a Spanish inquisitor.) However, it seems as though she felt like she had to cram as much of her findings as possible into the story, making the book feel overstuffed and bloated.

I have to say, I'm very glad I won this book in a contest. If I'd paid good money for it, I'd be massively pissed off. There are a couple of readers' quotes on the back cover, one of which reads "a richly satisfying historical novel. It deserves prizes." Yeah, a big fat booby prize. I'm not faulting the author's writing skills; bloated as it is, the richly-drawn scenes show a mastery of the English language. Bower writes well, however her characters are massively unsympathetic and her storytelling meandering. Quite honestly, had I been able to relate more to the characters, especially in regards to Esther, had she been more three-dimensional, with more spirit and intelligence, I wouldn't have minded expending the effort I did in order to get through the book. As it is, I feel disappointed and vaguely angry.
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Reading Progress

05/17 page 122
22.0% "So far I'm not seeing what all the praise is about. The titillating scenes are only there to titillate--they serve no other purpose. And who is Violante? She's a cipher, a lens through which we watch the action. She has no other purpose, oh, except her "love" for Cesare which, I'm sorry to say little virgin, is merely lust. You don't even know him well!"
05/18 page 204
38.0% "pg. 175 "I wanted to be Cesare's dog, I thought, lying at his feet, secure in the smell of him, to be kicked or kissed at his whim and grateful for his attention." For god's sake, gag me with a spoon! Are you kidding me? I'm hating this book, there are no sympathetic characters at all. Violante's a delusional twit, Cesare's a malicious brute and Lucrezia's a manipulative shrew." 2 comments
05/19 page 395
73.0% ""...I think your embrace must be pricklier than the iron maiden's." Ha, caught you! The iron maiden was the creation of a fevered Victorian imagination, not the Spanish Inquisition. Research much, lady? Idiot." 3 comments
02/01 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-16 of 16) (16 new)

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message 1: by faeriemyst (new)

faeriemyst I've been eying this lately. You'll have to let me know what you think. A simple yay, nay, or eh will suffice. :D

Lolly's Library (Dork Kettle) Definitely. I'll try to keep my answer simple. ;P

Iset It's arrived! :D

Lolly's Library (Dork Kettle) Yeah, sorry, I meant to tell you, the book arrived today. I couldn't believe how quickly it got here!

message 5: by faeriemyst (last edited May 14, 2011 03:53AM) (new)

faeriemyst Laura wrote: "Definitely. I'll try to keep my answer simple. ;P"

I meant only if you weren't up for an in-depth review (I'll take that too). I forgot to add that. :P There's just something about the cover that lures me in; it's so decadent. :D

Lolly's Library (Dork Kettle) We'll see when I'm done. I'm still working on my reviews for the two Sara Poole books...ugh. Yes, it is a decadent cover. So far, it's been a little bit difficult to get into, but I've only just begun.

message 7: by faeriemyst (new)

faeriemyst I'll send some very extra special review-writing mojo your way. :D I hope the story picks up! :)

Lolly's Library (Dork Kettle) Thanks, I think it worked, not necessarily for the review, but something else kicked in. ;D It has a bit. I think Poole's books have spoiled me for anything else Borgia related. :|

message 9: by faeriemyst (new)

faeriemyst You're welcome. I guess. :D That could be. Maybe reading books unrelated to the Borgias between those reads would make them more enjoyable, even if they aren't as good as Poole's for you. Sorry if that last sentence is a mess, but I had the hardest time fixing and rearranging it to sound somewhat coherent and it still doesn't look right to me. I hope you get the gist anyway. %[

Lolly's Library (Dork Kettle) If it helps, you can take some of the credit for my review of The Borgia Betrayal; apparently your mojo helped kick me into gear. :) Don't worry, I got the gist; your sentence wasn't as convoluted as you thought. Or, more likely, my brain is twisted enough to understand it. Yeah, I suppose I could read something else in between Borgia books, but I'm in the mood to read them now and if I don't take advantage of that, I might not get back to these books for quite some time. :P

message 11: by faeriemyst (new)

faeriemyst Nah, you wrote it, it's all yours. :) I'd rather it not be as convoluted as I thought, but as long as you comprehended what I meant, then it's all good. :D I understand moods like that, they pop up here and there for me also. :)

message 12: by Iset (new) - rated it 3 stars

Iset Deary me!

message 13: by faeriemyst (new)

faeriemyst I think I might pass on this one. :/ Did you see it was originally titled Book of Love when it was first published in 2008?

message 14: by Iset (last edited May 23, 2011 09:51AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Iset I did. Someone else I know read this recently and noted that they saw it had been retitled and re-released, and they thought they smelt a trap.

The Borgias are the trend this year, everyone's doing them. Two different tv series no less, and like a gazillion novels on the Borgias have suddenly been released specifically this year.

Lolly's Library (Dork Kettle) faeriemyst wrote: "I think I might pass on this one. :/ Did you see it was originally titled Book of Love when it was first published in 2008?"

I saw that as well...after I'd started reading the book. Had I known beforehand, I don't think I would've entered the contest to win this.

@Beth: It's just the same as when The Tudors first premiered--all of a sudden there were a dozen or more books released, all set in the Tudor period, all of varying quality. When publishers see a trend, they squeeze it for all it's worth.

message 16: by Iset (new) - rated it 3 stars

Iset Tell you what, it does give me a hankering for Poison, Sara Poole's book. With Sins I've now had two friends both give it 2 stars. With Poison, I've seen Laura give it 5, one friend gave it 1, and two friends gave it 3... so I kind of have higher hopes that it might be better. Not that I let friends' ratings have the absolute final word on what I do or do not read, but I like to read with curiosity what my friends have to say about it, and particularly if its a friend who shares similar reading tastes.

Heck yeah, I've seen a TON of Borgia fiction recently. This - Poole's two books - Kalogridis' The Borgia Bride - Scarsbrok's Poison in the Blood - White's Borgia Ring - even Plaidy's books about the Borgias, which were written yonks ago, are being reissued.

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