The Borgia Testament
This time last week my wife and I were driving to Pennyslvania for a funeral. It was a trip of about ten hours, so we brought along a few books to share out loud. While she was driving, I tried reading a Solar Pons story, which we both found fairly enjoyable (Solar Pons is a sort of Sherlock Holmes stand-in that I’ve heard about for years but never seriously tried, until I got a recommendation from friend and Pons scholar Bob Byrne). The second Pons story in the collection didn’t grab us, so I pulled out an old book I’d read in college, thinking my wife might enjoy it.
Turns out that she did. That book was The Borgia Testament, by Nigel Balchin, a fictional autobiography of Cesare Borgia, hero of Machiavelli immortalized in The Prince, son of a pope, and would-be uniter of Italy when it was nothing but a fractious collection of city-states. He was ruthless but very clever, and an irresistible magnet for historical fiction writers. In college (which is, jeez, a quarter century ago now) I read a big stack of novels about him. Now it’s possible that there have been some more, and better, novels since, but The Borgia Testament was head and shoulders the most compelling and entertaining of the lot, and I liked it well enough that I tracked down a copy for my permanent library some years ago.
A lot of the ’50s and ’60s historical novels sound good in concept but are much slower paced with less action than would be expected from the blurbs. I know I’ve mentioned this before on site. The Borgia Testament doesn’t drip with action and sword fights until the final third, but it’s so compelling that you’re pulled forward by other factors, waiting to see exactly what happens once Cesare finally has the power he’s been scheming for his entire life — and how it will all go wrong. Highly recommended. I wonder, now, why I haven’t tried reading any more Balchin. I should remedy that.