Jo Walton clearly loves—and knows an awful lot about—the Renaissance. She populated her Just City (2015) and its sequels with key historical figures from the Italian Renaissance, all of whom appear here (although this book exists apart from the Thessaly Trilogy, which we have reviewed here, here, and here). Lent explores the political intrigue and theological tumult of Florence at the turn of the Sixteenth Century through the lens of its most controversial inhabitant.
Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498) was a Dominican friar considered either a saint or a heretic for his efforts to turn Florence into the “New Jerusalem.” In this historical fantasy, Brother Girolamo possesses the power to dispel the demons that besiege the city. The first half of the book hews closely to the historical record in its depiction of the friar’s brief, tumultuous life in the city at the heart of the religious, political and artistic revolutions that made up the Renaissance.
But midway through the novel, a shocking twist occurs that makes it impossible to review what it is really about without spoiling the gut-wrenching turn that takes place. Instead, I’ll have to focus on some broad themes.
As with the Thessaly Trilogy, this book tackles major philosophical issues, yet avoids polemicizing by grounding those philosophical issues in fully-rounded characters. Girolamo remains a controversial historical figure. His efforts to root out corruption—both civil and ecclesiastical—in Florence made him quite popular with his followers, but far less so with the elites who ruled the city. Pope Alexander VI was a member of the infamous Borgia family and father to four acknowledged (and likely more unacknowledged) children despite his vow of celibacy. Alexander ordered Girolamo to stop preaching, which the friar did for a time, only to resume his attacks on clerical corruption until his eventual excommunication in 1497 and execution in 1498.
This conflict between pope and friar plays out in the pages of Lent. Pious Girolamo struggles to uphold his vow of obedience to Church authorities whom he believes to be irredeemable sinners. This same conflict would later spur the Protestant Reformation. Indeed, Martin Luther considered himself to be following in Grirolamo’s footsteps.
Girolamo struggles with what it means to be good in an evil world. This is a universal struggle for believers and non-believers alike. Lent is a tale of sin and redemption, of punishment and forgiveness, of power and justice, of certainty and compromise. An no writer of fiction is better at handling such enormous concepts than Jo Walton.