The Malice of Fortune [NOOK Book]

Overview

Against a teeming canvas of Borgia politics, Niccolò Machiavelli and Leonardo da Vinci come together to unmask an enigmatic serial killer, as we learn the secret history behind one of the most controversial works in the western canon, The Prince...
When Pope Alexander dispatches a Vatican courtesan, Damiata, to the remote fortress city of Imola to learn the truth behind the murder of Juan, his most beloved illegitimate son, she cannot fail, for the scheming Borgia pope ...

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The Malice of Fortune

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Overview

Against a teeming canvas of Borgia politics, Niccolò Machiavelli and Leonardo da Vinci come together to unmask an enigmatic serial killer, as we learn the secret history behind one of the most controversial works in the western canon, The Prince...
When Pope Alexander dispatches a Vatican courtesan, Damiata, to the remote fortress city of Imola to learn the truth behind the murder of Juan, his most beloved illegitimate son, she cannot fail, for the scheming Borgia pope holds her own young son hostage. Once there, Damiata becomes a pawn in the political intrigues of the pope’s surviving son, the charismatic Duke Valentino, whose own life is threatened by the condottieri, a powerful cabal of mercenary warlords. Damiata suspects that the killer she seeks is one of the brutal condottierri, and as the murders multiply, her quest grows more urgent. She enlists the help of an obscure Florentine diplomat, Niccolò Machiavelli, and Valentino’s eccentric military engineer, Leonardo da Vinci, who together must struggle to decipher the killer’s taunting riddles: Leonardo with his groundbreaking “science of observation” and Machiavelli with his new “science of men.” Traveling across an Italy torn apart by war, they will enter a labyrinth of ancient superstition and erotic obsession to discover at its center a new face of evil—and a truth that will shake the foundations of western civilization. 

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  • The Malice of Fortune
    The Malice of Fortune  

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Ennis (The Duchess of Milan) brilliantly recreates the complex politics of early 16th-century Italy in this absorbing and intelligent thriller that teams Leonardo da Vinci with Niccolò Machiavelli. The assassination of Juan Borgia, an illegitimate son of Pope Alexander VI, leads the pope to turn to Juan’s older brother, Cesare, to further his military and territorial ambitions, which are opposed by mercenaries who fear the Borgias’ consolidation of power. Against this turbulent backdrop, the future author of The Prince seeks to apply “the principles that govern the nature of men” to solve a series of brutal murders that have left women mutilated. Da Vinci’s scientific approach to examining the corpses advances the inquiry, even as the killer’s vicious m.o. and planting of cloven footprintssuggest that the devil himself is responsible. What could have come across as a contrived partnership is anything but in Ennis’s skilled hands, and he seamlessly integrates the search for the murderer with the power struggles of the day. Fans of superior historical mystery writers such as Steven Saylor and Laura Jo Rowland will be enthralled. 6-city author tour. Agent: Dan Lazar, Writers House. (Sept.)
From the Publisher
“Epic… This is a dense narrative, permeated by the sights, sounds and smells of Renaissance Italy, and one that can stand shoulder to shoulder with Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose, with which it is sure to be compared.” —Kirkus (starred review)

"Absorbing and intelligent... Fans of superior historical mystery writers such as Steven Saylor and Laura Jo Rowland will be enthralled." —Publishers Weekly (boxed, starred review)

“A hefty novel about the politics of 16th-century Italy [that] reads like a pulpy mystery… A thrilling whodunit—and a pretty good primer on da Vinci’s ‘science of observation’ as well as Machiavelli’s ‘science of man.’” —Melissa Maerz, Entertainment Weekly

“Ennis is an uncommonly graceful writer and a conscientious researcher… his story zips along, a pleasure.” —Charles Finch, USA Today

“Ennis bring[s] multiple layers of authenticity to his epic novel. It’s a heady mix of “The Da Vinci Code,” Borgia politics and “The Silence of the Lambs.” Think of it as CSI: Italy circa 1502, with Machiavelli as a detective and psychological profiler and da Vinci as history’s first forensic pathologist.” —Christian DuChateau, CNN

“An intricate murder mystery and political thriller [with] a heartrending love story… Like the best historical fiction, the novel transports the reader entirely elsewhere.” —Laura Pearson, Time Out Chicago

“Intricate, rewarding… The Malice of Fortune is reminiscent of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose in that the intrigue is rich and is inextricably entwined in its world. Amid these walls of power the reader no more loses sight of the danger of the game than of the need to solve the puzzle. The novel works not just because it is a finely wrought history but because the characters are of their time while transcending it.” —Robin Vidimos, The Denver Post

“A novel that ranks among the best with the Italian Renaissance setting…. The narrative brims with minor details that convey authenticity and authority over the material…. Ennis brings the characters alive with impassioned dialogue.” —David Hendricks, San Antonio Express

“Leonardo da Vinci and Niccolo Machiavelli join their considerable forces in this teeming historical thriller… They make an exceptional team.” —Sheryl Connelly, New York Daily News

“With its vivid, well-defined array of characters, The Malice of Fortune captures the glorious and gritty details of Renaissance Italy in a propulsive story. Ennis has achieved a great accomplishment, historical fiction that places us right into the characters' present.” —Matthew Pearl, author of The Dante Club and The Technologists

The Malice of Fortune is more than a thriller—it's a tender love story, a grim exploration of the nature of human evil, and an immersive tour of Renaissance Italy as courageous, perceptive young Niccolo Machiavelli fights for his life against ruthless Borgia factions.  A novel written with gusto, panache, and intellectual rigor.” —Lyndsay Faye, author of Gods of Gotham and Dust and Shadows

"A true masterpiece... Michael Ennis has poured the knowledge and wisdom of many lifetimes into the exquisite form of a mystery so dark, so labyrinthine.  The Malice of Fortune is stunning, terrifying, and utterly mesmerizing. I can honestly say I never fully appreciated the genius of Machiavelli, or the savagery of the Borgias, until now." —Anne Fortier, author of Juliet

“Michael Ennis bring the Renaissance alive in this tour-de-force: The Malice of Fortune dishes out a simmering stew, thick with chicanery, bloodshed, dastardly deeds, code-breaking, puzzle-solving, and a cast of characters that includes Leonardo da Vinci, Niccolò Machiavelli, Francesco Guicciardini, Cesare Borgia—and Damiata, the real-life courtesan whose brassiness, brains, and beauty dazzle even her employer and nemesis: the Pope.” —Katherine Neville, author of The Eight and The Fire
 
“For readers who've been waiting all these years for the next The Name of the Rose—here it is. Michael Ennis brings a scholar’s mind and a writer’s heart to this beautifully crafted work of Renaissance intrigue that has a rare quality of feeling ancient and modern at the same time. A powerful thinking-man’s thriller.” —Glenn Cooper, author of Library of the Dead and Book of Souls
 
“This is a fascinating novel, filled with extraordinary, well-realized historical characters and a plot that is engrossing and wickedly clever. The Malice of Fortune is an excellent, beautifully researched, and well-written novel that has a fine, fine sense of place. It captured my attention up front and kept me turning the pages to the very end." —Douglas Preston, co-author of The Monster of Florence
 
“Intriguing [and] well-researched...Ennis, a former art-history teacher, is an expert on Renaissance Italy.  Everything in [Malice] is based on actual events and Ennis' fictional conceit - that Machiavelli and da Vinci work together to stop a powerful serial killer - shape[s] Holmes-and-Watson duos out of historical figures.  Having Machiavelli cast in the role of what Ennis calls ‘history's first forensic profiler’ will satisfy those who come for the period ambience.” —Booklist

Library Journal
When his son Juan is murdered in distant Imola, Pope Alexander asks the courtesan Damiata to discover what happened. In Imola, Damiata is so undercut by the political intrigue originating with the pope's other son, the Duke Valentino, that she turns to a little-known Florentine diplomat named Niccolo Machiavelli for help; the observational skills she needs to catch the killer are furnished by one Leonardo da Vinci. The publisher's big fiction title of the month.
Kirkus Reviews
In this epic novel, Ennis gives ample evidence that political and religious corruption in early-16th-century Italy makes anything vaguely analogous look like Sunnybrook Farm. At the center of this swirling unscrupulousness are several key historical figures, most notably the ruthless Duke Valentino of Romagna; his equally merciless father, Pope Alexander VI; a brilliant military engineer and draftsman named Leonardo da Vinci; and Niccolo Machiavelli, who bases his political theory of power on the machinations of the aforementioned duke. The first narrator in this labyrinthine tale is Damiata, whose son is kidnapped by his grandfather, the pope, in a raw display of power and privilege. (Perhaps it's not necessary to mention that these are all Borgias, so in Renaissance Italy, raw displays of power are as common as segreto sauce.) Damiata is one of the "cortigiane oneste" or "honest courtesans"--or even more colloquially, a whore with the proverbial heart of gold. If political intrigue is not enough, there have also recently been some serial killings in which the victims were dismembered and decapitated. Enter Leonardo, who plots the found body parts on a map of Imola, the city in which the gruesome murders occurred, and discovers that the points correspond to those consistent with an Archimedean spiral. The narrative switches over to Machiavelli, who reminisces about the events of 1502 in which Italy is in turmoil, owing at least in part to the assassination of Pope Alexander's beloved son, Juan, brother to the duke and lover of Damiata. Enlisting the help of Machiavelli in solving this murder mystery, she and Machiavelli become both lovers and fellow detectives. This is a dense narrative, permeated by the sights, sounds and smells of Renaissance Italy, and one that can stand shoulder to shoulder with Umberto Eco's Name of the Rose, with which it is sure to be compared.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385536325
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/11/2012
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 416
  • Sales rank: 362,126
  • File size: 4 MB

Meet the Author

Michael Ennis
MICHAEL ENNIS taught art history at the University of Texas, developed museum programs as a Rockefeller Foundation Fellow, and worked as an independent curator and consultant. He is the author of two historical novels, The Duchess of Milan and Byzantium. He has written for Esquire and Architectural Digest, and is a regular contributor to Texas Monthly. He lives in Dallas with his television producer wife, Ellen, and their daughter, Arielle.
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Read an Excerpt

Excerpted from the Hardcover Edition


Chapter 1


My dearest, most darling Giovanni,

We lived in two rooms in the Trastevere. This district of Rome lies across the Tiber from the old Capitol Hill, on the same side of the river as the Vatican and the Castel Sant’Angelo. Gathered around the Santa Maria church, the Trastevere was a village unto itself, a labyrinth of wineshops, inns, tanneries, dyers’ vats, and ­falling-­down houses that were probably old when Titus Flavius returned in triumph after conquering Judea; many of the Jews who lived there claimed to be descended from his captives. But our neighbors came from everywhere: Seville, Corsica, Burgundy, Lombardy, even Arabia. It was a village where everyone was different, so no one stood out.

Our rooms were on the ground floor of an ancient brick house off a narrow, muddy alley, with little shops and other houses crowding in on every side, their balconies and galleries so close overhead that we always seemed to go out into the night, even at noon. I kept my books and antique cameos hidden, displaying nothing that might tempt a ­thief—­or reveal who I had formerly been. But we whitewashed the walls once a year and always swept the tiles, and you never slept on a straw mattress but always on good cotton stuffing; there was never a day we ­didn’t have flowers or fresh greens on our tiny ­table—­or wanted for bacon in our beans.

In the evening, before you slept and I went out, I would read Petrarch to you or tell you stories. That was what we were doing on our last night ­together—­19 November, anno Domini 1502. I showed you this bronze medallion stamped with a portrait of Nero Claudius Caesar, about whom I recited tales I had read in Tacitus when I was little more than a girl. Hearing of his crimes, you gave Signor Nero a very stern look and wagged your finger at his engraved visage, telling him, “Even an emperor does not have lice . . . lice . . .”

“An emperor does not have lice?” I asked, which made you frown like a German banker, so I said, “I think the word you are reaching for is license.”

“Sì, Mama, license. Even an emperor does not have license to be so evil.” Your sweet cricket voice was so grave. “Therefore, we shall punish Signor Nero. No dessert! His sugared almond will be given to Ermes.”

Do you remember Ermes, my eternal love? He was our darling Tenerife, who adored you as much as you adored him. When you said his name he wiggled his woolly rump and lapped at your precious hand with his little pink tongue.

Camilla sat on the bed with us, sewing patches on her skirt. She was my dearest friend and most devoted servant, who took you on a journey to the piazza in front of Santa Maria every day, when I could not go out, and slept next to you every night, when darkness freed me to do my business. Your zia Camilla was not your real auntie, but she was my sister in everything but blood, and if one day I did not come home, I trusted her to keep you safe and see that you became a man. Thin as a birch and taller than I am, our sweet Camilla had a pale, grave face, her eyes and mouth dark smudges, which made her seem like a lovely ghost, though she was as strong as a Turk wrestler. She was born in Naples, and nature made her hair as ­raven-­hued as I dye mine now.

I could describe every detail of that tiny room in the Trastevere, my most adored and most precious son, yet I could never describe the love that surrounded you there. And now I have no greater fear than that we will become separated by an ocean of time, which no words can cross.

Perhaps all you will remember of me is that I did not come back for you.



An old Jew named Obadiah lived next door to us, above a noisy wineshop. He was a divine man, scarcely tall enough to look through a keyhole, who loved to discuss the works of Flavius Josephus and often arranged for me to purchase antiquities from dealers and ­cavatori—­diggers—­of his acquaintance. So when I heard the pounding on our ancient oak door, it was not at all remarkable to find Obadiah there, although I was surprised at his urgency. His face was always like a marvelous drawing on old parchment, all the lines carefully marked in sepia ink. Yet as I looked down at him peering around the side of our door, that yellowed parchment seemed to bleach out in an instant.

The three men were in our house even before poor Obadiah could sag and fall to the ground; they made certain we saw their saber and stilettos. But you weren’t frightened, nor was Ermes, who rushed at them even before you did, barking like a woman screaming until the man with the saber swatted him with his blade and our precious dog flew against the wall like a bundle of wool. A heartbeat later you collided with this man’s legs and at once he clapped his hand to your mouth and directed the tip of his blade at your little belly. The invaders had entered without a word, but now this man, who had only one seeing ­eye—­the other was like a poached ­egg—­said with a coarse Neapolitan accent, “We’ll slit the boy like a November hog.”

I wanted to say, “I don’t believe the man who sent you will permit you to kill his grandson.” But if your grandfather had sent these men, he was very shrewd, because they sufficiently resembled common thieves that I could not be certain they weren’t. So I had to say, “I’ll show you where my things are.”

The second man came around behind me and shoved the wooden gag in my mouth; it is a miracle he did not knock out my teeth. He tied the leather cord behind my head so tight that the knot felt like the butt of a knife jammed into my skull. The wood sucked all the moisture from my tongue and I could only watch as the third man gagged Camilla. I will never forget the look in her eyes just before he pushed her down on the mattress.

The ­one-­eyed man had started out the door with you, clutching you to his breast, you kicking and flailing until he said, “Do you want me to kill your mama?” Though you were not even five years old, you were clever enough to at once cease your protest. And by then you could see the body of dear old Obadiah lying outside our door, his shirt sopping with blood as red as a cardinal’s hat. He had died trying to warn us.

For my part, I bolted to the door, preferring to perish in pursuit of you than share our beloved Camilla’s fate. I was not forced back into the room; after the second man grabbed me by the hair, he proceeded to drag me alongside you and his accomplice, pricking his knife into my ribs whenever I struggled. The flock of chickens that roosted on the balcony next door clucked and chortled as we passed beneath them.



It did not take us long to arrive at your grandfather’s residence, even though we circled around the back. As we came up through the garden mazes, the basilica and palazzo rose like mountains above us, lamps flickering in dozens of windows. Within moments we were inside that great edifice, glimpses of gilded furniture and new frescoes rushing past, the brightly colored patterns of the tapestries and Oriental rugs flying at me like confetti at Carnival. The entire establishment reeked of pleasure: smoldering censers, fresh orange and rose water, roasted meats, musk, wax candles, and spilled wine.

Halfway through our passage two more men, hooded like monks, took you from your ­one-­eyed captor. I could say nothing to you in farewell, merely issuing terrible, strangled sounds that nearly choked me, until I thought a merciful God would take me away. But of all the dwellings in this sinful world, our Immaculate Lord is least present in the house where you and I had just become captives.

Light from an open doorway burst before me, as brilliant as fireworks. Laughter leapt out at me as mercilessly as Caesar’s assassins when he entered the senate. The room I was shoved into was the big sala reale, most of the floor transformed into a forest of brass lampstands. In a scene our Dante never thought to invent, two dozen or so women, on their hands and knees, crawled like pigs rooting for acorns, bare breasts swaying and naked white bottoms quivering, some squatting in an effort to retrieve the ­prizes—­chestnuts—­strewn upon the Turkish carpets. In accordance with the rules of the house, they were not allowed to use their hands or ­mouths—­or even their toes.

The master of that evening’s quaint ceremony was your grandfather, Rodrigo Borgia, though the rest of Christendom calls him il papa: Pope Alexander VI. His Holiness was seated upon the raised wooden dais, behind a table covered with cloth of gold, the saltcellars arrayed atop it in a symposium of miniature gold and silver gods and goddesses. The silvered sugar desserts, in the shapes of deer, dolphins, unicorns, and lions, crawled among the little deities like the disgorged cargo of some confectionary ark.

As I was dragged ­toward the master of the house, the men at the table stared with eyes reddened from the smoke, not a jacket remaining on ­anyone—­they were down to shirts and hose, or breeches, all those bald or tonsured heads glistening. Your grandfather’s white silk shirt was so wet that it had become a milky membrane, clinging to his great chest and sagging ­old-­man’s breasts. His skull gleamed like a brass bowl, the rim of this vessel a fringe of ­gray-­tipped chestnut hair that fell over his ears. I had not seen him in five years, but it was as if that time had been only an illusion.

Leaning back in his immense gilt chair, he offered me his scrutiny, his pupils as black and empty as the holes drilled in a marble bust. He tilted his head slightly, his magnificent predator’s beak pointing the way back out.



I did not have to be carried far, just around two corners. Once we entered your grandfather’s apartments, I even knew precisely which of these lavishly frescoed rooms would witness my travail. Called the Hall of Saints, it was empty save for a few chairs and sideboards; in the center remained a brazier, a small intarsia table, and a single armchair, upholstered in scarlet velvet embroidered with little gold bulls, the symbol of your family.

Once I was tied upon this throne, I quickly received my first visitor, your grandfather’s master of artillery, Lorenzo ­Beheim—­he of the treatises on dark magic and procedures to summon Satan. Beheim carried a wooden box such as physicians haul about. Placing this item on the table beside me, he opened it so that I could admire instruments that indeed looked like those used to explore the womb and extract a reluctant ­infant—­tongs, hooks, picks, and pliers. As he brought the brazier closer, no doubt for his convenience when heating these devices, the reek of burning charcoal invaded my nostrils.

Having completed these preparations, he left.

Yet I was not entirely alone. The upper walls all around me were framed by massive gilded arches, and the painter Pinturicchio had filled each of the ­half-­moon-­shaped lunettes with tales of saints, their legends portrayed as extravagant ceremonies teeming with spectators. My chair had been placed so that I could look up at the lunette opposite the window, upon which the enormous Disputation of Saint Catherine of Alexandria had been painted in gorgeous peacock hues.

This view allowed me to renew my acquaintance with some of your grandfather’s bastards. You see, Pinturicchio used all sorts of people at your grandfather’s court as models for the characters in this tale, though in the short years since he finished his labor, time and Fortune had altered so much about them. At the center of this glorious pageant was Saint Catherine, presenting her defense of the Christian faith to the Emperor Maximinus and his colloquy of scholars. Saint Catherine was a perfect likeness of your aunt Lucrezia, the present Duchess of Ferrara, her hair falling in flaxen waves, her puckered mouth as red as a cherry, her cerulean gaze fixed on a dream. This portrait was more real than life, because when I knew Lucrezia, if ever she was caught in a momentary thought, she would at once show her perfect teeth, a smile intended to draw one’s attention from the desperate hope in her eyes.

In my worst fears, my darling, you have come to know Lucrezia’s expression; but if this is so, then perhaps you have an image in an imperfect mirror of your mama. Because it was often said, in those years when I was familiar with your family, that I looked enough like Madonna Lucrezia to be her older sister. I never thought so; your ­aunt’s nose was smaller, her forehead less broad, her eyes a lighter tint. But perhaps now I share with your aunt Lucrezia the same sorrowful hope.

No less real than Lucrezia’s portrait were the two figures at opposite sides of the scene. Your grandfather had intended his most cherished son, Juan Borgia, the Duke of Gandia, to serve as the model for the Emperor Maximinus. But Pinturicchio’s vision had been less clouded by sentiment and he instead made another bastard son, Cesare Borgia, the face of this ­all-­powerful sovereign. At the time the painting was done, Cesare had been twenty years old; he was still a cardinal of the Holy Roman Church and he still had his sister Lucrezia’s delicate beauty. Yet Pinturicchio had given him a peculiar gaze, the dark green eyes staring down and away, fixed on something that could not be bound within the picture, as if Cesare were peering into a realm even the painter could not imagine.

Opposite Cesare, on the other end of the wall, Pinturicchio had placed Juan in the guise of a Turkish sultan, the sort of costume this most beloved son had indeed favored in life, a great linen turban around his head, his cape and loose trousers a tapestry of Oriental patterns. Juan was darker than his ­siblings—­Cesare and Lucrezia are quite ­fair-­complected—­and in this portrait his gaze is predatory, a falcon’s angry yet wary stare. In life, if Juan ever looked thus, it was a pose.



My meditation on those fleet years that “carry us to death’s sharp spear,” as Petrarch would say, was at last interrupted by your grandfather. Beheim at his side, still in his sweaty shirt, His Holiness wore only sagging hose and scarlet slippers, the better to display his legs, which were still sturdy and ­well-­shaped. He advanced to me with the graceful step of a much younger man, toes out as if his dance master were watching. Only when he was close enough to touch me could I see how much he had ­aged—­the liver spots, the thin skin stretched taut over the great obstinate hump of his nose. But his lips were luxurious as ever, pursed delicately, as if he had just sipped a particularly fine wine and was trying to get the taste of it.

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Reading Group Guide

THE MALICE OF FORTUNE
A novel by MICHAEL ENNIS
 
Reading Group Guide
 
Synopsis
 
When Pope Alexander dispatches a Vatican courtesan, Damiata, to the remote fortress city of Imola to learn the truth behind the murder of Juan, his most beloved illegitimate son, she cannot fail, for the scheming Borgia pope holds her own young son hostage. Once there, Damiata becomes a pawn in the political intrigues of the pope’s surviving son, the charismatic Duke Valentino, whose own life is threatened by the condottieri, a powerful cabal of mercenary warlords. Damiata suspects that the killer she seeks is one of the brutal condottierri, and as the murders multiply, her quest grows more urgent. She enlists the help of an obscure Florentine diplomat, Niccolò Machiavelli, and Valentino’s eccentric military engineer, Leonardo da Vinci, who together must struggle to decipher the killer’s taunting riddles: Leonardo with his groundbreaking “science of observation” and Machiavelli with his new “science of men.” Traveling across an Italy torn apart by war, they will enter a labyrinth of ancient superstition and erotic obsession to discover at its center a new face of evil—and a truth that will shake the foundations of western civilization. 
 
About the Author
 
MICHAEL ENNIS taught art history at the University of Texas, developed museum programs as a Rockefeller Foundation Fellow, and worked as an independent curator and consultant. He is the author of two historical novels, The Duchess of Milan and Byzantium. He has written for Esquire and Architectural Digest, and is a regular contributor to Texas Monthly. He lives in Dallas with his television producer wife, Ellen, and their daughter, Arielle.
 
 
 
Discussion Questions & Answers
As prepared by MICHAEL ENNIS
 
There is a marked consensus among Niccolo Machiavelli’s modern biographers that few men were ever less “Machiavellian” – in the modern sense of the word – than Machiavelli himself; he was an affable, kind-hearted, scrupulously honest public servant with an abiding desire to make the world a better place. When you are introduced to the “real” Machiavelli in The Malice of Fortune, do you find his character surprising? Did you wait for the next shoe to drop, believing that he was merely deceiving Damiata – and us?
 
The setting of The Malice of Fortune is remarkably austere compared to the typical treatment of Renaissance Italy; the flat pianura of the Romagna in winter (at a time when winters in Europe were much colder than today) seems almost like the frigid plains of North Dakota. What sort of mood did this setting establish? How did it frame the unfolding of the story? Can you compare The Malice of Fortune to other books with a similarly austere, forbidding setting?   
 
The Malice of Fortune takes place centuries before the terms "psychopath" and "serial killer" enter the lexicon. In fact, even the basic concepts of psychology lie in the distant future; in his belief that human nature can be studied and human behavior anticipated, Niccolo Machiavelli actually lays the foundation for modern psychiatry and psychology. What techniques did Machiavelli use to study human nature? And what Renaissance-era terms and concepts did Machiavelli use, as both a character and narrator, to communicate to his contemporaries psychological concepts that would have been utterly alien to them?
 
The theme of Fortune as the malicious governess of the world obviously pervades The Malice of Fortune; it is an idea central to The Prince and Machiavelli's determination to anticipate events, to foresee political crises before they can have catastrophic results. This belief in the tyranny of Fortune arises from the widespread belief among Renaissance-era Italians that their institutions — both the church and the state — had entirely failed, leaving them at the mercy of foreign powers and random events throughout the rest of Europe. In our time, do many people similarly share a loss of faith in ability of our institutions – financial institutions as well as government — to provide a stable society and insure fair opportunity for all? Does Renaissance Italy provide a cautionary tale of the consequences when an entire people no longer believe that they have control over their lives?
 
How does Leonardo da Vinci view Fortune? Are his efforts to decipher the mysteries of nature also an attempt to impose human understanding — and a measure of control — over the seemingly random forces of nature? How would Leonardo change the world, given the power and resources to do so? Did Cesare Borgia tempt him with the possibility of creating a new civilization? How would the world be different if Leonardo’s ideas had been embraced and carried out by his contemporaries?
 
Before Leonardo, the human body was seen as an unfathomable mystery; even physicians had little familiarity with the world beneath our skin. Leonardo instead regarded the human body as an immensely complex machine and attempted to understand and describe every intricacy of its functioning. Before Machiavelli, individual human nature was not seen as autonomous; each of us was merely a pawn in a cosmic struggle between God and Satan. Machiavelli instead saw individual human character as immutable and unaffected by any higher or lower power; each of us must take responsibility for his or her own fate. Is both cases, is this what is meant by the "humanism" of the Renaissance? How did this kind of thinking pave the way for centuries of progress and innovation?
 
Both Machiavelli and Leonardo are extraordinarily keen observers, yet their methods of observations are often at odds. How are they alike? How are they different?
 
Who would be more interesting to sit down and converse with today, Leonardo or Machiavelli? (Michael Ennis has a very strong opinion on this – which he’ll be glad to share with your group!)
 
Damiata describes a world in which a woman has three choices — all of which are made for her. The first of these choices, marriage, requires her father's willingness and ability to pay her prospective husband’s family a suitable dowry, while her future happiness depends on her family’s discerning choice of that husband. The second choice, which was often imposed on women whose fathers could not afford a dowry, was the convent, where the nuns lived in poverty and were all too often sexually abused if not prostituted by the monks, who had a dreadful reputation for wantonness and gluttony. Last was the profession of a prostitute; although it usually led to a short and miserable life, a few ambitious courtesans like Damiata were able to achieve something approaching real independence – including the freedom to enter the highest cultural and intellectual circles. If you lived in Renaissance Italy, which of the three paths would you prefer?  
 
Machiavelli's devotion to Damiata is based on his extremely romantic nature, little-known among those who have read only The Prince, but an aspect of his character that runs unfailingly throughout all four decades of his personal correspondence. In his letters, Machiavelli writes of love as the highest power and describes ardent and intellectually fulfilling relationships with several courtesans and “actresses.” But if Machiavelli clearly adored women – and eventually became a loving if not entirely faithful husband to Marietta – do you think he also had unrealistic expectations of women? What does it say about him that in the end, his greatest love was Florence?
 
For all her acquired refinement and erudition, Damiata’s origins are very lowly, and she must conceal the psychological scars of having been used by men – and women – for many years before she was able govern her own fate. Can you cite examples where her rough edges and resentments are showing?
 
While researching The Malice of Fortune, Michael Ennis not only relied on hundreds of scholarly books, articles, and original documents, but also devoted considerable time to the history of forensic psychology and the evolution of scientific thinking about psychopaths and serial killers. Central to this research was the work of psychologist Dr. Robert Hare, who pioneered the clinical diagnosis of psychopathy. Among the key traits Dr. Hare identified were a glib, manipulative charm; narcissism and grandiose self-importance; a need for constant stimulation and a penchant for risk-taking; and an indifference to the suffering of others, along with an utter lack of remorse. Which of these traits became critical to Machiavelli’s initial belief that he was dealing with a very different sort of murderer?
 
In researching accounts of individual psychopaths, Michael Ennis was struck by how some “high-functioning” or “organized” psychopaths were able, in effect, to analyze the mental health professionals examining them, discover their vulnerabilities and insecurities, and use these insights to their advantage, in a few cases literally seducing a clinician into aiding an escape (Hannibal Lecter is not entirely a fabrication!). The high-functioning psychopath’s ability to not only convincingly feign emotions he cannot feel, but also to be capable of discerning our loftiest hopes and deepest fears, becomes Machiavelli’s key to finally recognizing the murderer. Why does it take Machiavelli so long to understand the murderer’s signature trait? What finally pushes Machiavelli over the edge – or is Machiavelli really just guessing until the very end, when he can finally hold proof of the murderer’s guilt in his hands?  Can you think of examples in our time where gifted individuals have appealed to our loftiest hopes – or deepest fears — only to be exposed as corrupt and entirely self-interested?     
 
The Prince idealizes its role model, Duke Valentino, whom Machiavelli later denounced in more candid, lesser-known writings. Yet Machiavelli also tells us he won't apologize for The Prince. Why did Machiavelli believe there was redeeming value in making the idealized Valentino an example for posterity?
 
One of the most important aspects of Machiavelli’s character in The Malice of Fortune is his passionate patriotism for his native Florence, even as he laments the shortsightedness of his fellow citizens and the shortcomings of their government. But do we ever see his patriotism go too far, and lead him to unethical decisions? Is The Prince itself, which is really an appeal for a strong man to step forward and rescue Florence before she loses her autonomy to foreign tyrants, a case of Machiavelli taking his patriotism too far?
 
Machiavelli writes during the first information revolution, when the printing press allowed books and ideas far wider circulation than did the laborious process of hand-copying. Yet Machiavelli cautions that this innovation is morally neutral, allowing lies to proliferate just as easily as truths. Would he issue the same warning to us, now that the internet and digital technology have brought about a second information revolution, with a similar democratization of knowledge?
 
In the Malice of Fortune, Machiavelli cautions us that the “new man” he has identified – what we would call a psychopath – has a nature that is particularly suited to attaining and holding political power. This man is able to intuit our deepest fears and hopes, using them to both persuade and deceive us; utterly amoral in seeking his self-aggrandizing objectives, he also has a complete absence of remorse for the consequences of his actions. Some recent research has shown that psychopaths disproportionately occupy the highest offices in businesses and government today. Do you think that this sort of deeply flawed character is all too common among our corporate and political leaders? Why do the rest of us allow such individuals to succeed?
 
As he began researching The Malice of Fortune, Michael Ennis meticulously examined the documented historical record, seeking answers to several key mysteries that historians have left unsolved for centuries: Why did such an astute, self-interested judge of character as Rodrigo Borgia (Pope Alexander VI) overlook his prodigiously gifted son Cesare, and instead place his considerable ambitions in the hands of a younger, hopelessly inept bastard son, Juan of Gandia?  Why did Leonardo da Vinci suddenly abandon Duke Valentino, who alone could have fulfilled his ambitions, at the height of Valentino’s power? And why did Machiavelli elsewhere describe the “hero” of The Prince as a profoundly evil man, using terms of genuine moral outrage? The Malice of Fortune claims to unravel these mysteries – and Michael Ennis bases his conclusions on an exhaustive study of the evidence. Can you think of alternative explanations?
 
As Michael Ennis observes in his Author’s Note, “Machiavelli's magnum opus, Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livy, represented his true political philosophy: An ardent champion of the Florentine republic, Machiavelli preferred the imperfect wisdom of the people to the will of princes and passionately advocated representative government — a radical egalitarianism that would not become a potent political force until the American and French revolutions more than 250 years later. The Prince was, in effect, merely Machiavelli's plan B: what to do when political prudence has long been disregarded, chaos reigns, and the only choice is between effective or ineffective despotism.” Simply put, for centuries we have misjudged, misrepresented and misunderstood Machiavelli based on an out-of-context interpretation of The Prince. Yet this fundamentally false version of Machiavelli remains one of history’s best-known and most enduringly influential figures. Do you think that the real Machiavelli – the “good” Machiavelli – would have been remembered at all without the notoriety of his plan B? (Certainly Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livy isn’t as catchy a title as The Prince.) What do you think misunderstanding Machiavelli has cost western civilization, both in actual political turmoil and in generally fostering attitudes of self-interest, amorality and dishonesty? Could Machiavelli, who died with his major works unpublished, possibly have foreseen that the term “Machiavellian” would be ubiquitous in popular discourse five hundred years later? And what would he think of the use to which what he described as “a little study of principalities” has been put by both political and business leaders far removed from his time — and entirely unaware of the intended purpose of The Prince?
 
Did reading The Malice of Fortune make you want to (re)read The Prince?  

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Sort by: Showing all of 13 Customer Reviews
  • Posted October 5, 2012

    "The DaVinci Code" - NOT

    Was so excited to buy this book because of a review comparing it to The DaVinci Code which I loved. But it surely wasn't of the same caliber. While the reader will definitely come away with a clear picture of the historical political intrigue of that period, the tedious narration style of the author kills the mystery. It did not engage me at all - was bored by the letters/format- takes way too long to get to the point. Two thirds of the way thru I put it down for good.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 13, 2013

    I love historical fiction and I loved reading 'The Prince' by th

    I love historical fiction and I loved reading 'The Prince' by the famed Machiavelli himself. When I started this book I saw that it was written in a similar style to 'The Prince' and got excited.

    It was quite a let down. Historically accurate to a fault, it came across as dry and tedious to read. It read more like a historically accurate fanfiction than anything else, like the author just really wanted to show off their knowledge of the period rather than create an enjoying read.

    It's a shame. Our book club will be more careful to read the reviews of books before we decide on our next one.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 11, 2013

    One of worst books I have ever read

    Tedious beyond belief

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 19, 2012

    Outstanding

    Brilliant characters and timely political insight

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted November 11, 2012

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    Posted October 25, 2012

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