Lent: Big twist makes for a powerful exploration of deep themes

Lent by Jo Walton science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsLent by Jo Walton science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsLent by Jo Walton

Jo Walton writes truly thoughtful books, as anyone who has read her THESSALY TRILOGY (The Just City, The Philosopher Kings, Necessity) knows. She’s also, those fans also know, a big fan of Renaissance Italy, particularly Florence. So it comes as no surprise to find this the setting for her newest novel, Lent (2019), which wrestles in the same thought-provoking manner major issues, though here those issues are more personal and intimate, even as they also encompass larger political and philosophical concepts and consequences.

The first half (or nearly so) of the novel reads like a magical realism history of the famous (or perhaps notorious) Dominican Savonarola. If you know anything about Savonarola, it’s probably his oversight of the Bonfire of the Vanities, though that event earns barely a few pages here as Walton both broadens and deepens our view of the man, delving deep into his aching desire to make Florence the “City of God,” a new “ark” as he styles it, to ride out the coming storm God has vouchsafed to him. That ability to prophesize, as well as his gift to both see and banish demons, is the one fantastical “twist” in the early part of Lent. His desire to cleanse both the city and his own Dominican chapter of spiritual and political corruption is welcomed by some and not so much by others, including powerful figures in the Borgia and Medici families who hold positions such as Pope or heir to rulership of Florence.

Jo Walton

Jo Walton

One tools along in these first 170 pages of a historical novel quite happily, if perhaps a bit befuddled at its fantasy classification, despite the occasional demon. But then, at nearly the half point, a major plot twist occurs, the details of which I’m not going to spoil here for the reader. But I will say that the twist then turns the rest of the novel into a series of iterations on a life, sort of a mash-up of Groundhog Day (though the potential repercussion of the repeated life choices are far wider than a single man’s personal growth), C.S. Lewis (not his Narnia books), and Hieronymus Bosch. The precipitating twist is a true gut-punch, but the ensuing variations on a theme do a painfully wonderful job of portraying a heartbreaking struggle of a single soul, an aching story of a journey through sin toward a forlorn hope of redemption, a story of punishment and atonement, of despair and the possibility of forgiveness, a tale of choices and consequences.

It’s, as noted, a thoughtful novel, one that doesn’t offer up easy premises or answers, but it’s equally a highly emotional book as well, and that balance overcomes Lent’s few flaws. While Savonarola is sharply, vividly depicted, I wished some of the side characters were more fully explored. And the ending, unfortunately, felt far too rushed, robbing it of some of its potential impact. That said, Lent overall is a powerful rumination on big concepts masterfully conveyed through the prism of a single point of view. And don’t be surprised if afterward you find yourself traveling down the rabbit hole looking up the various real personages to try and learn more about them.

Published in May 2019. From Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Award-winning Jo Walton comes Lent, a magical re-imagining of the man who remade fifteenth-century Florence―in all its astonishing strangeness. Young Girolamo’s life is a series of miracles. It’s a miracle that he can see demons, plain as day, and that he can cast them out with the force of his will. It’s a miracle that he’s friends with Pico della Mirandola, the Count of Concordia. It’s a miracle that when Girolamo visits the deathbed of Lorenzo “the Magnificent,” the dying Medici is wreathed in celestial light, a surprise to everyone, Lorenzo included. It’s a miracle that when Charles VIII of France invades northern Italy, Girolamo meets him in the field, and convinces him to not only spare Florence but also protect it. It’s a miracle than whenever Girolamo preaches, crowds swoon. It’s a miracle that, despite the Pope’s determination to bring young Girolamo to heel, he’s still on the loose…and, now, running Florence in all but name. That’s only the beginning. Because Girolamo Savanarola is not whoor whathe thinks he is. He will discover the truth about himself at the most startling possible time. And this will be only the beginning of his many lives.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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