Harry Potter has a lot to answer for. It’s now fashionable for young people’s novels to be of a positively Victorian length. The success of The Da Vinci Code also means that a once neglected bit of ‘foreign’ history is now deemed mainstream. Neither fact, however, diminishes the merits of Breslin’s new epic: a story of plots, murders and betrayals with a cast that includes not only Leonardo but the Medicis, Machiavelli and the Borgias.
Its central character and narrator is a boy on the brink of manhood known as Matteo and apparently the orphan of travelling folk or gypsies. Pursued by villains, he falls into the care of Leonardo and becomes his assistant as the inventor and artist journeys through the northern states of Renaissance Italy. It’s a journey with plenty of macabre twists (including a memorable night in a morgue where Leonardo dissects a body in the pursuit of learning) and, if episodic, is a serious ‘page-turner’.
Yes, it’s possible to criticise the novelist for sharing too much of her considerable research with us (the fashion details, for example, are interesting but not intrinsic to the plot or atmosphere) and for the fact that, like many a historical novelist, she has problems creating convincing period dialogue. Matteo has had little formal education but speaks in perfect grammatical sentences.
These are small blemishes however. The reader will be swept along by the action and, on the way, learn a great deal about the heartless families who ruthlessly battled for power while commissioning some of the world’s greatest artworks.