Prince of Foxes is a work of historical fiction by Samuel Shellabarger set in the long ago days of Italy during the era of the free cities, specifically during the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, as the power of Cesare Borgia was at it’s zenith. As the name implies, the book centers on a character who prizes himself on cunning and subtlety – although the relative value of those things is left more for the reader to decide on his own.
The plot revolves around Andrea Orsini, a young noble and chevalier (or knight) in the service of Cesare Borgia, who’s working his way up the ranks of Borgia’s court and has just been assigned his first political mission (as opposed to a combat mission.) Andre faces a lot of problems along the way – he’s lying about who he is, he’s fallen in love with a married woman and he winds up dueling one of the most proficient chevaliers of his era on something of a fool’s errand. And then there might be the little part where he adds to his problems by deciding to betray one of the most powerful men in the land for the sake of outdated notions of love and honor…
At the very heart of the conflict is the growing and competing notions of honor and self interest Andre holds. On the one hand, Andre prides himself on being very modern and quietly sneers at the values of honor and chivalry that so many of the foreign knights espouse. That’s not without cause – Northern Italy was one of the richest parts of Europe at the time and wouldn’t be eclipsed until it’s poor avenues of trade to the American continents gave the advantage to England and the Dutch, and they got there in part by shedding feudal ways of living often upheld by notions of honor and duty. But they were also ways that Borgia would take them back to.
On the other hand, the Lord Varano, an old soldier who has lived by the code of honesty and respect for all people, is the embodiment of the Italian free city. He serves his people as much as they serve him and he lives chivalry rather than preaching it. He has married Camilla, Andrea’s love interest, for her protection and not out of romance or a desire for heirs. Varano respects his people’s rights because that is the honorable thing to do in his mind, providing a picture of honor and chivalry that upholds something worthwhile rather than something cynical and self-serving, like Borgia and the serfdom he’s seeking to go back towards. Neither honor or cynicism are ideals, it turns out, but rather tools to uphold either freedom or slavery – and it’s these Andre has to choose between.
Although Andrea has been promised Varano’s city and wife by Borgia, if only Andrea will help take them by treachery and murder, ultimately Borgia doesn’t view Andre as his equal as the old man and his wife do. In no long period of time Andre will have to decide where his loyalties lie and each choice comes with unpleasant consequences.
This story has pretty much everything you might like from a good piece of historical fiction. A wealth of real, historical figures, a backdrop of events of great consequence – although little discussed now, Italy of this time period was a testing ground for democratic principles like citizen’s rights – and most important of all, fictional characters that blend seamlessly into the historical narrative. It also grapples with questions of what it means to be a man, to lead people and where the place of God and honor (or societal pressures if you want to be technical) fit in it all.
While the plot moves pretty slowly by modern standards that is fairly reasonable for a book over seventy years old and not all tales of intrigue hinge on how fast events move. Prince of Foxes is one that prefers to entrap readers by how much pressure it puts on. The story is chock full of characters, real and imagined, noteworthy for their cunning. There’s at least three different agendas at work most of the time and gambits pile up pretty high by the end. At the same time, at least one protagonist gets through most of the book totally ignorant of all the machinations and if you can’t follow them all either you won’t be any worse off.
If what you want is a good story with memorable characters who do a little scheming and a little standing on principle, this is one of the best books I can recommend. On the other hand if all you want is a good yarn well told this is… still one of the better options out there.
And if you want a hero without fear and above reproach, it’s got that too.
So go read it! It’s worth your time.