My tour of the M.M. Bennetts Award finalists nears its completion with the shortlisted finalists. First up, David Blixt’s The Prince’s Doom.
Imagine a world in which the 14th-century historical figures of Italy — the Della Scala family of Verona, the Doge of Venice, Petrarch, the family of Dante Alighieri, the Carrara family of Padua — interacted and lived alongside the characters of Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet, Katherine and Petruchio, the Merchant of Venice, and so forth. It’s a great premise: after all, Shakespeare did use incidents from Italian history for some of his plays, and historical characters pop up in them from time to time. So why not have them coexist in a fictional universe of their own?
That’s the premise of The Prince’s Doom, and I gather of the other books in David Blixt’s “Star-Cross’d” series, of which this novel is the fourth. The book is an enjoyable literary mash-up of characters we’ve seen before, historical figures we may have heard about but known little of, and entirely new fictional characters brought in as well.
The central character is Pietro Alaghieri (to use the novel’s spelling), the heir to Dante and a knight of Verona. He has been given the task of overseeing the upbringing of Francesco (“Cesco”) Della Scala, the heir to the ambitious and formidable Cangrande Della Scala, Verona’s ruler. Cesco is brilliant, unstable, and vastly promising, so Pietro’s task is not just the obligation of a knight to his ruler, but a personal and moral challenge. Pietro is a complex, sympathetic character, and following the turns of his mind as he tries to understand and curb Cesco’s extravagant behavior makes for great reading.
I would probably have been able to follow the complicated plot of this novel better if I had read the earlier books in the series. These novels are real doorstoppers, with The Prince’s Doom coming in at just under 700 pages, so they’re the kind of books a person can burrow into and enjoy a huge cast of characters, lots of action, and an exotic setting depicted with great care. In addition to being an author, Blixt is a theatre professional known for his skill at the staging of theatrical swordfights, so as you can imagine there are plenty of rip-roaring fight scenes here to go along with the court intrigue and intricate plotting. The Shakespearean characters add a dash of familiar unfamiliarity to the story, and it’s enjoyable to see them reinvented in the mind of another.
SW: The Prince’s Doom is nearly 700 pages with an enormous cast of characters. Was it daunting for you to undertake such an ambitious project?
DB: More daunting in hindsight. This is the fourth novel in the series, and the cast and size both grew naturally from the previous books. I had a lot to accomplish in this one, and at the same time wanted the story to have room to develop naturally. That was aided by the visit I made to Verona last year – I was allowed to see places I’d never visited before, and several spots became settings for scenes I hadn’t even imagined yet. The places determined the action, which allowed the city to be as much a character in the story as the people.
SW: I’m guessing that many of us know fourteenth-century Italy mainly through its literary representations. Your novel engages with the actual historical situation of the time, as well as bringing in figures we know from literature. How did you balance the fictional and the historical in the book? Were there particular rules you set for yourself on how much liberty you could take with actual people and events?
DB: My rule of thumb is I cannot contradict the historical record. That being said, I’m lucky there’s a lot of missing data from this period. I am allowed to fill in the gaps, and do so either with literary characters or historical ones I’ve appropriated. When possible, I like to blend the historical figures with the literary ones – Cesco is an example of that, being both historical and literary at once.
As far as liberty, I’m using the historical backdrop to tell my story. I won’t contradict history (at least, not intentionally), but why people act the way they do is open to me. Motives matter a great deal. Part of my great joy in writing historical fiction is the creative detective work of figuring out why one of my characters would have done this or that in the historical record. Sometimes the actions fit perfectly with the characters I’ve crafted. Sometimes they don’t, and those are the fun times, when I have to weave new threads and hatch new plots – political, familial, martial – to explain a seeming incongruity. It has the added benefit of making all my characters more complex.
SW: I’m particularly curious about the characters from Shakespeare that come in and out of the book. Did you find it advantageous having characters with what we might call a “past history” as characters, or did their prior characterization in Shakespeare act as a limitation on what you could do with them?
DB: Mostly advantageous, though an occasional trouble was wanting to resolve their issues, and knowing that cannot happen. At this point in the series, I’ve hit about a third of Shakespeare’s Italian plays – Shrew and Merchant are behind us, Much Ado, 2 Gents, and R&J are ahead of us. So some characters have their histories behind them, but for most their famous scenes are yet to come. So, just as I can’t contradict history, I cannot contradict Shakespeare. I very much wanted to end the Capulet/Montague feud – I love Mari and Antony, and want them to stop their nonsense. Yet as the play is still years in the future, the feud must continue to exist. But for Tybalt, Romeo, Friar Lawrence, Juliet, the Nurse, it was just pure fun to give them their early years. And of course Mercutio, whose series this is.
SW: One of the focal characters is Francesco della Scala, known as “Cesco” in the book. How much is known about the actual individual? What attracted you to him as a character?
DB: I came at him backwards. When I created the series, it started with the feud from Shakespeare. Then I delved into the history of Verona, and was astonished by Cangrande. He’s a figure deserving his own books, and so I gave them to him. Yet he reminded me of someone, too. Shakespeare’s wildest spirit, Mercutio, who is referred to in R&J as the Prince’s “kinsman” and “near ally”. So when I discovered Cangrande had a bastard son, one whose life was mostly unknown, I decided to merge them. That decision has dominated fifteen years of my life, and will continue on for some time.
As for the historical Cesco, his marriage is factual. The rest is me, a la Shakespeare.
SW: Reading The Prince’s Doom, I felt a real fascination with the city of Verona. Can you tell us a bit about Verona? What do you find interesting about that location?
DB: One of my favorite things about Verona is that it is a living city. Whereas all the ruins in Rome are only tourist attractions, the historical sites in Verona are still in use today. There are operas and concerts in the Roman arena, Cangrande’s palace is city hall, his suite of rooms the residence of the Chief of Police. Verona is not a monument to the past, but has incorporated its past into its present. And the wine in the region is marvelous.
SW: What’s next on your writing agenda?
DB: Talk about daunting. I am skimming the surface of four different novels, seeing which one takes hold. I have to edit the next volume in my series on the Roman-Jewish wars, WAIL OF THE FALLEN. I’m dabbling in an Elizabethan noir. I have a book about Hell, another about the supernatural, and I’ve just started research for the next Will & Kit book. I want all of those out of the way before I dive back into Cesco’s world. Yet I have to admit, there’s an itch, a longing, to do it now, this minute. The Star-Cross’d series is where my heart resides. These are the stories I most want to tell, and count myself lucky that I’m allowed to do so.