The Ground is Burning is a the author’s fictional recreation of the coming together of three great figures in Italian history; Ceasare Borgia, Niccolo Machiavelli and Leonardo da Vinci in Autumn 1502. This is not a period or setting that I know much about. Of the three key figures, I only know anything about da Vinci before reading this, although the others I knew by name. Armed with so little knowledge I didn’t know what to expect, nor can I judge the historical accuracy of this tale – I understand from the epilogue that the meeting of the three did take place, but most of the detail is uncertain.
Putting the historical aspect to one side, how did I find this as a novel? It begins with the abduction by Borgia of a young noblewoman, Dorotea Caracciolo, who, although his captive, becomes enamoured by his power (this we are also told happened historically, although there is little detail known about what happens to her after that). The story is the unravelling of the consequences of that act, and her interactions with the three men. As a tale of political intrigue and an examination of the nature of true power, I thoroughly enjoyed it! The portrayal was colourful, the characters distinctive, and the plot enjoyable. It has left me wanting to find out more about the setting and the people, and to that end the author has certainly succeeded! The tension between the factions and the intrigue was well presented – in many ways this is the real-life ‘Game of Thrones’ for those that are familiar with that body of work. One simple and very helpful touch was the list of characters and who they are at the front of the novel. To often in such books the list, if there is one, is tucked away at the back and only discovered when you have reached it, having spent ages flicking back and forth during the reading to remind yourself how everyone fits together.
So who in the end discovered true power and contentment? Borgia, with his scheming? Machiavelli with his reflections on politics da Vinci with his thirst for knowledge and beauty, or Dorotea the captive turned lover? That I won’t give away, you’ll have to read the book to find out, but this is the question I am left with having just closed it. What does it mean to be successful and how do we measure it? Important questions I believe.