I grew up on Golden Age Radio, and while I love to read, I typically consume more books via audio thanks to a job that lets me listen while I work. As an aspiring writer, I try to read a great deal of non-fiction in addition to a variety of fictional genres. I especially love history, historical fiction, science fiction, fantasy, and old-style gothic horror.
A straightforward biography of the life and times of Joan of Arc would be interesting enough for me. But 600 years after she was born, the story of the Maid of Orleans has been repeatedly built up and torn down by every perspective imaginable and used to attack or defend any position of thought. This book walks us through each stage of Joan's mission step-by-step. At each step, we're given Joan's situation, the events of history as it played out, the growth of the legend, and the various interpretations of all of it by scholars, psychologists, and Hollywood. At each step, the historical Joan is presented more and more remarkable as a direct result, proving that (yet again) fact is stranger than fiction. In short, much like Joan herself, this book has done the impossible.
I've mentioned in other reviews of other books about Joan that I share the same weird fascination with her as did Mark Twain. I'm not Christian, I'm not French, I'm not likely to be associated with either faction, and yet... the story of Joan is one that just sucks me right in, assuming it's given a proper presentation. This book does that and so much more. Kathryn Harrison has created in my eyes the best telling of this story since Twain himself.
As narrator, Cassandra Campbell is a great choice. She has a soft strength to her voice characteristic of the subject matter, and she has a command of the French language that's essential to the story.
The author postulates the idea that the legend of the Borgias has trumped scholarship for the last 500 years, and that the real story is far more interesting. That's always a great setup for a good narrative history, isn't it? If any family in history has been the recipient of bad press, it's the Borgia family. Corruption, blackmail, incest... the crimes perpetuated in the Borgia name know no bounds, made more sensational by the fact that the guy pulling the strings sat on the Papal throne. But is that reputation deserved?
Meyer did such a great job tackling the Tudor dynasty, I couldn't help but be drawn to this one. Admittedly, almost every text I've ever read on the Borgias fits the stereotype of what the author describes as the problem, and I do find his scholarship to be fascinating in the extreme. The book is so carefully laid out that the political backdrop for Rodrigo's rise to power takes up the first 8 hours out of a 20 hour presentation. It's so intricate by comparison of nearly everything else in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and yet so easy to follow with Meyer's expert guidance. It makes me wish I had this book years ago when I first dipped my toes into Renaissance history. Once the dominoes are put in place, the Papal crown is placed on Rodrigo's head, and from there more dominoes are put into place every bit as fast as the ones in play start falling. It's easy to understand why this is one of those stories that gets out of control quickly.
The Borgias may never escape their legend, but Meyer's account truly is compelling, starting with the claim, supported by recently uncovered Vatican records, that Rodrigo was elected pope fair and square, unanimously. This is the sort of spin you'll find here, and the story only unfolds from there, systematically dispelling myths and verifying truths one by one. If I were making a wish list, I would want Meyer to give us companion volumes for the Medici and Sforza lines. Such tales naturally intersect and are touched upon here, but the Borgia focus of the book does taper the narrative point of view a little bit. That's probably for the best since the total story from all sides would probably be a massive rodent killer of a book. Even so, I want that book. This one is a great start.