The latest novel by Jeanne Kalogridis – author of The Borgia Bride and I, Mona Lisa – proves once again why she is a top-notch author of Italian Renaissance historical fiction. The Scarlet Contessa tells the tale of Caterina Sforza - bastard daughter of the Duke of Milan and wife to the Pope’s nephew, Count Girolamo Riario – who was known for her fearlessness as a military leader.
When Caterina’s husband proves to be less than proficient in battle, she takes over and wins the respect of her husband’s troops with her intellect and military prowess. She courageously leads them into battle against armies that attempt to invade her lands.
These are rare accomplishments for a woman in that era, indeed, and Caterina was also infamous for her beauty. But Kalogridis also portrays her as a scandalous figure with many lovers, including Rodrigo Borgia, who later became Pope Alexander VI. She often used men to try and gain an advantage.
Caterina’s lady-in-waiting, Dea, narrates the story. Dea has the ability to see into the future using triumph cards, an early form of Tarot. From an early age, Caterina seems destined for greatness, but Dea’s triumph card readings reveal that the two women have a shared destiny that ends tragically.
Meanwhile, Dea’s husband is murdered under mysterious circumstances. As she struggles to come to terms with his death and find his killer, she uncovers some shocking secrets about her family’s past that throw everything she knows about her identity - and her husband’s identity – into turmoil.
While Dea is discovering the truth about her own past, Caterina successfully fights off two attempted invasions. Dea warns her that a third invader will come, one that she cannot defeat. When Pope Alexander VI sends his son, Cesare Borgia, with armies to defeat Caterina and claim her lands, Dea knows that this is the destiny she read in the cards. When defeat seems imminent, Dea feels an overwhelming compulsion to perform one final act in an effort to save Caterina.
Filled with a lot of surprising twists, The Scarlet Contessa is a fascinating read that kept me riveted to each page. Caterina is mostly known historically for her accomplishments as a warrior, but Kalogridis gives her life as a woman, wife, lover and mother. The Scarlet Contessa was so good that it left me wanting more, and it compelled me to research more about the events and people of Caterina’s time.