Jo Walton’s new book, Lent, has been on my to-read list for awhile. Fiction set in the Renaissance tends to either be great or lackluster. It’s the rare book that involves Girolamo Savonarola. Savonarola led a series of reforms in the Catholic church in the fifteenth century but eventually was executed for heresy. He also burned secular artwork in a huge Bonfire of Vanities, which rarely gets a good spin. How could a figure like this be the hero of the book? I didn’t know, but in Walton’s capable hands, I had to find out.
Lent posits the conundrum of a religious devotee who has secretly always been something he himself despises. In a move that combines Groundhog Day with Renaissance Italy, Lent sees Girolamo Savonarola facing the revelation that he is a demon whose punishment is to live life on earth as a pious monk and church firebrand, without realizing his truth nature until he ends up back in Hell. Girolamo finds himself suddenly conscious of his torture after he discovers a relic in a nearby abbey that has the power open the gates of heaven. Still determined to save the souls of Florence, Girolamo enlists the philosophers under Lorenzo Medici’s patronage to help him either lift his curse or, well, die trying.
However, for the first third of the book, the only magic present is the magic of a scholarly interest. Until Girolamo’s first death, it reads much more like a historical fiction novel about Girolamo Savonarola than a speculative work. Readers familiar with their European history will love the shout outs, and everybody else shouldn’t worry too much if they don’t recognize everything. As a historical fiction novel, Lent avoids contrived cameos, but includes reasonable ones (it’s a not stretch to believe that Girolamo Savonarola could have met Michelangelo, for example) as Easter eggs – pardon the pun. Or don’t, the title is a pun, after all. The atmosphere of this novel floats along at an aimble current that avoids both judgy modern scrutiny of the past and an outright love letter.
Lent will doubtlessly please fans already familiar with Jo Walton’s style and interests. Walton returns again to the subject of history and adds a science fiction spin. History buffs intrigued by the Italian Renaissance will enjoy the puzzle presented by this novel. More action oriented readers will need some patience.
Three out of five stars
Favorite quote: “The airy lightness is an illusion, caused by a limited point of view, as is so much in this world.”