Review: Lent, by Jo Walton

Russ Allbery eagle at
Thu Jan 16 20:15:22 PST 2020

by Jo Walton

Publisher: Tor
Copyright: May 2019
ISBN:      1-4668-6572-5
Format:    Kindle
Pages:     381

It is April 3rd, 1492. Brother Girolamo is a Dominican and the First
Brother of San Marco in Florence. He can see and banish demons, as we
find out in the first chapter when he cleanses the convent of Santa
Lucia. The demons appear to be drawn by a green stone hidden in a
hollowed-out copy of Pliny, a donation to the convent library from the
King of Hungary. That green stone will be central to the story, but
neither we nor Girolamo find out why for some time. The only hint is
that the dying Lorenzo de' Medici implies that it is the stone of

Brother Girolamo is also a prophet. He has the ability to see the
future, sometimes explicitly and sometimes in symbolic terms. Sometimes
the events can be changed, and sometimes they have the weight of
certainty. He believes the New Cyrus will come over the Alps, leading
to the sack and fall of Rome, and hopes to save Florence from the same
fate by transforming it into the City of God.

If your knowledge of Italian Renaissance history is good, you may have
already guessed the relevant history. The introduction of additional
characters named Marsilio and Count Pico provide an additional clue
before Walton mentions Brother Girolamo's last name: Savonarola.

If, like me, you haven't studied Italian history but still think this
sounds vaguely familiar, that may be because Savonarola and his brief
religious rule of Florence is a topic of Chapter VI of Niccolò
Machiavelli's The Prince. Brother Girolamo in Walton's portrayal is not
the reactionary religious fanatic he is more often shown as, but if you
know this part of history, you'll find many events of the first part of
the book familiar.

The rest of this book... that's where writing this review becomes

About 40% of the way through Lent, and well into spoiler territory,
this becomes a very different book. Exactly how isn't something I can
explain without ruining a substantial portion of the plot. That also
makes it difficult to talk about what Walton is doing in this novel,
and to some extent even to describe its genre. I'll try, but the result
will be unsatisfyingly vague.

Lent is set in an alternate historical universe in which both theology
and magic work roughly the way that 15th century Christianity thought
that they worked. Demons are real, although most people can't see them.
Prophecy is real in a sense, although that's a bit more complicated.
When Savonarola says that Florence is besieged by demons, he means that
demons are literally arrayed against the walls of the city and
attempting to make their ways inside. Walton applies the concreteness
of science with its discoverable rules and careful analysis to
prophecy, spiritual warfare, and other aspects of theology that would
be spoilers.

Using Savonarola as the sympathetic main character is a bold choice.
The historical figure is normally portrayed as the sort of villain
everyone, including Machiavelli, loves to hate. Walton's version of the
character is still arguably a religious fanatic, but the layers behind
why he is so deeply religious and what he is attempting to accomplish
are deep and complex. He has a single-minded belief in a few core
principles, and he's acting on the basis of prophecy that he believes
completely (for more reasons than either he or the reader knows at
first). But outside of those areas of uncompromising certainty, he's
thoughtful and curious, befriends other thoughtful and curious people,
supports philosophy, and has a deep sense of fairness and honesty. When
he talks about reform of the church in Lent, he's both sincere and
believable. (This would not survive a bonfire of the vanities that was
a literal book burning, but Walton argues forcefully in an afterward
that this popular belief contradicts accounts from primary sources.)

Lent starts as an engrossing piece of historical fiction, pulling me
into the fictional thoughts of a figure I would not have expected to
like nearly as much as I did. I was not at all bored by the relatively
straightforward retelling of Italian history and would have happily
read more of it. The shifting of gears partway through adds additional
intriguing depth, and it's fun to play what-if with medieval theology
and explore the implications of all of it being literally true.

The ending, unfortunately, I thought was less successful, mostly due to
pacing. Story progress slows in a way that has an important effect on
Savonarola, but starts to feel a touch tedious. Then, Walton makes a
bit too fast of a pivot between despair and success and didn't give me
quite enough emotional foundation for the resolution. She also dropped
me off the end of the book more abruptly than I wanted. I'm not sure
how she could have possibly continued beyond the ending, to be fair,
but still, I wanted to know what would happen in the next chapter (and
the theology would have been delightfully subversive). But this is also
the sort of book that's exceedingly hard to end.

I would call Lent more intriguing than fully successful, but I enjoyed
reading it despite not having much inherent interest in Florence,
Renaissance theology, or this part of Italian history. If any of those
topics attracts you more than it does me, I suspect you will find this
book worth reading.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2020-01-16


Russ Allbery (eagle at             <>

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