Book Review: “The Pope’s Greatest Adversary: Girolamo Savonarola” by Samantha Morris

57165112When we think about men who challenged the Church and are known as Reformers, we tend to think of Martin Luther, Jan Hus, and John Calvin. However, a man fought against corruption in his beloved Florence who should be included in the list of great reformers. He was a Dominican monk who was not afraid to preach against sin and took aim at the most powerful men in all of Italy, including Pope Alexander VII. His sermons were so scandalous that they would lead to his demise upon a pyre in the middle of Florence. His name was Girolamo Savonarola, and his story is told in Samantha Morris’s latest biography, “The Pope’s Greatest Adversary: Girolamo Savonarola.”

I want to thank Pen and Sword Books and Net Galley for sending me a copy of this biography. I read Samantha Morris’s previous joint biography of Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia and thoroughly enjoyed it. When I heard that she was writing a new biography about a famous figure in Italian history, I was intrigued.

Girolamo Savonarola was a scholar, like his father and grandfather before him, destined to be a doctor like his grandfather. His plan for his life took a drastic turn when the girl he was fell for rejected his advances, so he decided to join the Dominican order as a friar. Talk about not taking a break-up well. Savonarola studied the Humanist teachings and incorporated them into the way he understood his faith. Of course, as a friar, he couldn’t keep his opinions to himself, so he began preaching against corruption and the vices that he saw during his travel.

Savonarola’s preaching was appealing to the people of Florence, yet it did not sit well with the leader of Florence, Lorenzo de ’Medici. Lorenzo tried to silence the troublesome friar, but his son Piero de Medici took on the challenge when he passed away. Piero was nothing like his father and was overthrown as ruler of Florence by Savonarola. Of course, Savonarola was not satisfied with reforming Florence, and he decided to take on the Catholic Church itself and attack another powerful family.

Charles VII of France wanted to conquer Italy, which to the Dominican friar was a good idea, so Savonarola helped the king. This incident drew the ire of Rodrigo Borgia, also known as Pope Alexander VI, and Ludovico “Il Moro” Sforza of Milan, who just wanted the friar to shut up. Even with numerous ex-communications, Savonarola kept preaching against corruption and vices, leading to the Bonfires of the Vanities in 1497. He took artwork and writings deemed inappropriate and burned them in a humongous bonfire. A year later, on May 22, 1498, Girolamo Savonarola lost his life because of his heretic teachings.

This book has so many scandals and dynamic characters that you will forget you are reading a biography. Morris has done it yet again, and this was a brilliantly engaging and extremely well-researched biography. The way she can capture the thrilling world of 15th and 16th century Italy is astounding, and I hope she will write more about Italian history in the future. If you want a fun biography about a man who fought to reform the Catholic Church, I highly recommend you read “The Pope’s Greatest Adversary: Girolamo Savonarola” by Samantha Morris.

Book Review: “Dark Fire” by C.J. Sansom

28280675._SY475_The year 1540 during the reign of Henry VIII was a turbulent time. Henry’s new wife, Anne of Cleves, is not exactly the person who he imagined and his eye is starting to wander to a new woman, Katherine Howard. The reformers are starting to lose favor with the king as they and Catholics alike are being executed for treason. This is the London that Matthew Shardlake, our favorite hunchback lawyer turned detective, calls home. He thinks that he has retired from his detective work and serving Thomas Cromwell, but he is sadly mistaken. His next adventure has twice the number of cases and just as much danger that makes his trip to the monastery in “Dissolution” look easy. In the second book of the Shardlake series, “Dark Fire”, C.J. Sansom turns up the heat, the action, and the danger.

We join Matthew Shardlake during a busy season in his life as a lawyer. He is working on maintaining his legal practice, and his next case is a doozy. A young girl named Elizabeth is accused of murdering her cousin and it is up to Shardlake to defend her, even when everyone believes she is guilty of the crime. Just as he is adjusting to this new case, he gets a call from his favorite person who he thought he was done dealing with for a while, Henry’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell has a new case for Shardlake, to recover the lost formula for the mysterious Greek Fire, also known as Dark Fire. Cromwell knew that Shardlake would need some help with this new case, so he sends a new partner, the daring and resourceful Jack Barak. The only clue they have is someone from the Court of Augmentations found the formula in a dissolved monastery’s library, but when the person who had it and his alchemist brother are found brutally murdered, things get extremely complicated. Two separate cases that share the same deadline and the same amount of danger if Shardlake and Barak should fail to solve them. Can they solve both cases in time?

When I read the description of this book, my first impression was that C.J. Sansom was trying to cover too much in a book. I thought that there was no way that Shardlake could solve both cases in the time frame that he was given and that Sansom would focus on one case over the other. I was proven wrong as this book was beautifully balanced between the two cases while keeping the reader’s attention throughout the entire book.

Sansom made the Tudor London world come to life in this brilliant sequel. I thought the way he showed the struggle for power between those who had it and those who wanted it was masterfully done. He included some of my favorite characters from “Dissolution” in this book, which made me extremely excited and I believe that Shardlake’s new partner Barak was a stroke of genius. Their interactions were some of my favorites in this entire book and I cannot wait to see how he develops Shardlake and Barak’s partnership throughout the rest of the series.

I enjoyed this book immensely. It kept me guessing with both cases until the bitter end. There were so many twists and turns, revelations, and intrigue. There were some places where I think the pacing was a bit slower than the first book, but it did not detract from my enjoyment of this remarkable sequel. I did not want it to end because it would mean that I would have to leave this dynamic world with intriguing characters, until the next book. It was a sheer joy to dive back into Shardlake’s Tudor world and I honestly cannot wait to jump back into another Shardlake mystery. The first book made me fall in love with Shardlake, but this one made me fall in love with his Tudor world and the people around him. If you have read “Dissolution”, “Dark Fire” by C.J. Sansom is a must-read.