Frank Yerby’s speciality is novels about men and women who rise from poverty to wealth, fame, and marital bliss through their brilliance, loyalty, and sexual prowess.
Yerby sets The Saracen Blade in the 13th century. Pietro di Donati, a blacksmith’s son, is born on the same day and in same town as the baby who will become Frederick II of the Holy Roman Empire.
In that era, the aristocracy ruled by violence, usually having become aristocrats by violence. Though slightly built, inclined to intellectual rather than physical pursuits, Pietro becomes part of the violent world in which kingdoms clash, religions compete, and the poor suffer the consequences.
Pietro seeks his fortune in the only way boys of his era know: attaching himself to powerful knight and hoping to rise with him. For 30 years, he trudges around Europe, North Africa, and Asia as squire, knight, Crusader and trader. He pauses occasionally to admire the women and to retch when someone other than himself inflicts mayhem.
When Pietro finally gets back home, his childhood sweetheart is waiting. By that time, I was ready to retch.
I recommend reading the appendix. Yerby’s notes are better than his novel.
The Saracen Blade
Dial Press (book club edition), 1952
1952 Bestseller #9
295 pages + notes
My grade: C
©2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni
Michael Karvajalka is a disillusioned Finn making a pilgrimage from Rome to the Holy Land in 1527. Wimpy Michael and his muscle-bound half-brother, Andy, are born victims. Michael’s dog, Rael, is brighter than both of them together.
En route, Michael falls for Guila, a woman with one blue and one brown eye who tells fortunes. She says she’s an innocent virgin, and Michael believes everything he’s told.
When their ship is boarded by Turks, Michael and Andy convert to Islam to save their necks.
Michael, Andy, and Guila end up as slaves in Algiers.
Michael, who is as honest as he is naive, becomes a yes-man the Grand Vizer Ibraheim of the Ottoman Empire. Andy capitalizes on his wrestling and artillery skills, while Guila, now Michael’s wife, schemes her way into the Seraglio.
All three are caught up in the European conflict that spilled over when the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope struggled for domination.
Mika Waltari muddles through which what could have been a Middle Eastern perspective on Renaissance history unaided by either a plausible plot or plausible characters. He seems to have just recycled his earlier bestseller The Egyptian by advancing the calendar a few centuries.
Don’t bother going after this wanderer.
by Mika Waltari
Trans. Naomi Walford
G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1951
My grade: C-
© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni
Irving Stone’s hefty 1961 novel The Agony and the Ecstasy : a Novel of Michelangelo starts off with the 13-year-old Michelangelo signing on as apprentice to the leading artist in Florence. In a stunning reversal of normal practice, Michelangelo gets the artist to pay him for the privilege. It’s the most financially astute deal he ever pulls off . Once Michelangelo gets his hands on marble, he forgets all about money for the joy of sculpting.
Stone takes readers on a trip through Renaissance Italy as seen by Michelangelo, whose acquaintances included political leaders like the Medici, popes, writers, the best artists of he day, and a host of other 16th century celebrities.
Stone did extensive research for the novel, as the lengthy bibliography shows. Unfortunately, he tries to put everything he learned into the novel.
Stone packs so much detail into his narrative that nothing stands out. Stone notes when the artist changes his clothes and what he wears to visit the Pope, but the man himself seems less alive than his statues.
Readers need a thorough grounding in Renaissance history to appreciate the novel, and then they are likely to find reading it a tough job.
The Agony and the Ecstasy: A Novel of Michelangelo
by Irving Stone
1961 bestseller #1
My grade: C-
©2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni
Michael Bast is 6 or 7 when his Finland home, Abo, is sacked by the Jutes. Pierjo Furfoot, whom local children call a witch, takes him in. Michael’s goal is to become a priest, but the 16th century Catholic Church won’t accept take bastards.
Michael and brawny pal, Andy Karlsson, are drawn into a series of misadventures that take them all over Europe just as Luther’s reforms split entire countries along religious lines. They witness torture and mayhem from Finland to Rome, and have a hand in some of it themselves – with the noblest of intentions, of course.
Fortunately neither Michael nor Andy has any real political or religious convictions. They fall in with whichever side talks longest, thereby convincing Michael, and whichever pays best, thereby winning over Andy.
Michael is the stereotypical scholar full of good intentions and without a shred of common sense. Andy is an illiterate muscle man whose shrewd instinct for spotting a con snatches Michael from mayhem again and again.
To follow Mika Waltari’s blood-soaked plot requires a thorough knowledge of Renaissance and Reformation history. Understanding Waltari’s cardboard characters requires nothing but suspension of disbelief.
By Mika Waltari
Trans Naomi Walford
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1950
1950 bestseller #9
My Grade: C-
© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni
Prince of Foxes is historical fiction at its swashbuckling best. Samuel Shellabarger sets his tale of a blacksmith’s son who picks up the armor and identify of a fallen cavalier in 1400s Italy when the Borgias were top dogs in the city states.
Andrea Orsini goes to work for Cesare Borgia. Borgia sends him to conquor Citta del Monte as part of Borgia’s plan to create a unified Italian state.The city’s lady, Camilla, is to be Orsini’s reward. Orsini falls for Camilla and switches sides, letting himself in for a lot of trouble.
Few settings lend themselves so well to tales of cross and double-cross as the Italian Renaissance. Shellabarger, a Renaissance scholar, knows the era backward and forward, yet he makes all his knowledge serve his story.
Shellabarger draws his characters with bold strokes, but with just enough hesitancy in each personality to make them plausible. You may wonder how a blacksmith’s son acquired all of Orsini’s skills and polish, but while you’re reading you won’t doubt for a minute that he has them.
The plot is masterful. Shellabarger prepares readers for each plot twist with an adroit touch.
Prince of Foxes is a real page-turner, a made-for-the-imagination mini-series.
Don’t miss it.
Prince of Foxes
By Samuel Shellabarger
#10 on 1947 bestseller list.
My grade: B+
© 2006 Linda Gorton Aragoni
The Moneyman, Thomas B. Costain’s novel of 15th century French intrigue and counter-intrigue. is a much better novel than the tales of the Christian era for which Costain is famous.
“The Moneyman” is Jacques Coeur, semi-official financier for Charles VII. For years, Coeur manipulated French policy through the king’s mistress, Agnes Sorel. When Agnes becomes ill, Coeur must find a replacement so the king won’t turn to other advisers after Agnes dies.
Coeur finds and trains Valerie, a poor girl who looks like Agnes. When Agnes dies shortly after Coeur and Valerie visit her, the pair is charged with her murder. Coeur’s worst enemies are to be the judges at the trial; Coeur is not allowed to examine witnesses or call witnesses.
Right to the end I couldn’t figure out how Coeur and Valerie were going to get out of their predicament—and it mattered to me that they did.
Oddly enough, neither the plot nor the characters of The Moneyman are unusual. In The Moneyman, however, Costain has woven them so well into the historical account of battles to evict the English from France that the plot and characters seem alive.
Rediscover The Moneyman. It’s still a great read.
By Thomas B. Costain
#2 Bestseller for 1947
My Grade: B+
© 2006 Linda Gorton Aragoni