A Friend of Mine Has A Book Out and It’s Good

In a world of breezily researched and hastily written TikTok bestsellers, what a pleasure to read a novel as deeply grounded in historical fact and as impeccably crafted as my friend Alana White’s second entry in her Renaissance mystery series. The Hearts of All on Fire is an amazing book, the product of years of hard work … and it shows.

  • If you want to know what daily life in 1473 Florence was really like, read this book.
  • If you want an intriguing story with people brought to blazing life from the pages of history … Lorenzo de’ Medici, Leonardo da Vinci and that conniving, black-hearted Pope Sixtus IV … read this book.
  • If you want a compelling, no-stone-unturned (did I mentioned sexy?) sleuth who can’t rest until justice is done, even in the face of two bafflingly interwoven murder investigations, read this book.

The sleuth, Guid’Antonio Vespucci, was the uncle of the better-known Vespucci: Amerigo, the adventurous sailor for whom America is named. A Florentine investigator and doctor of law, Guid’Antonio served as a high-ranking Lord Prior of the Florentine Republic, and had ”his finger firmly in the pie of Florentine politics and, perhaps, even its history,” writes Alana in describing her appealing protagonist.

A perfect choice for a hero

As wise friend and counsel to the powerful Medici family, he is a perfect choice for a hero, a thoughtful center of calm in the storm of Italian life and politics during the period. Through his compassionate, clear-eyed perspective, we see that life in 15th century Italy, with its Christian-zealous patriarchy, its often cruel treatment of young girls, women and homosexuals, and its haphazardly applied system of justice, bears startling similarities to our present day.

Not a lot has changed over six centuries, Alana writes, but then she reminds us that there will always be heroes, too. Heroes like Guid’Antonio Vespucci.

A juicy story

The story begins with the death of a wealthy wool merchant (whom no one likes) at the St. John’s Day banquet table of the wealthy Vespucci family. The cause is Death Cap mushroom poisoning, so Guid’Antonio has a personal stake in tracking down how the deadly mushroom found its way to his table.

He is also involved in another case in which he must recommend the punishment for the man who has confessed to the murder of a 12-year-old girl (whose death is noted in the pharmacist Luca Landucci’s diaries from the period). When the girl’s faithful dog is found poisoned, too, Guid’Antonio begins connecting dots.

“Avarice, anger, pride,

Three fatal sparks, have set the hearts of all on fire.”

The book’s title comes from these lines in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Indeed, Dante’s three sparks fuel Alana’s story, motivating the players in this suspenseful tale.

Is the killer the merchant’s wife? His pregnant mistress or her family? His apprentice whom he publicly slapped? With Amerigo playing Della Street (often reluctantly) to Guid’Antonio’s Perry Mason, the story gallops to a satisfying conclusion. Along the way, we get a college-level course in the history of Florence, including its fiery, and ultimately deadly, conflict with Rome during the period.

Terrific descriptions, delicate touches

Yet most satisfying to me are the descriptions and the delicate touches that make Alana’s characters human and bring Florence beautifully alive. “Below him, luminous and quiet, lay a walled city of fifty-thousand souls whose river adorned her like a silver bracelet,” she writes of Florence as Guid’Antonio returns there from Imola, where he served as Florence’s negotiator in a failed attempt to claim the vital trade-route town as its own.

And here’s another: “After Guid’Antonio retrieved his brown cloak, he and Francesco crossed the grassy palace garden in a wash of pale moonlight, then stepped together into the loggia, where torches burning in iron holders whooshed and flared, illuminating their faces in shuddering shades of yellow and orange.”

Alana’s portrayal of Cesare, the flamboyant servant boy at first suspected of accidentally poisoning the merchant, is wonderful, as is Guid’Antonio’s appreciation of the outspoken lad. “You know you will always have a home with us, Cesare Ridolfi,” Guid’Antonio tells him at the book’s conclusion.

Moving stuff, since we suspect that Cesare will grow to become one of the homosexual young men considered on a par with murderers in Florence’s social order, men who could be sentenced to death if their illegal love lives were found out.

Guid’Antonio’s strength and intelligence set him apart

Yes, Guid’Antonio is a man of his time. Yes, he loves his city. But he also has the intellect to look beyond the local, to follow a wiser guide when it comes to determining right from wrong.

That he dare have a female doctor practicing alongside her physician father at the Vespucci Hospital, despite public (and his wife’s vehement) disapproval, is just one of the things that make him such a compelling character … a progressive man at a time when many in Florence, including Lorenzo the Magnificent, were still marching in place.

“What offers you peace, my friend?” the humanist philosopher, writer and teacher Marsilio Ficino asks Guid’Antonio near the book’s conclusion.

“Thinking,” Guid’Antonio answers. “Much like all of you.” Then he thinks to himself, “Though you write and discuss, while I act.” Those actions make for an action-packed book.

The challenge of historical fiction

I imagine the biggest challenge in writing a historical novel is keeping the story from being overwhelmed by the sheer amount of research behind it, by the author’s inclination to share all that he or she knows.

That’s not a problem here. The story is the thing, though it’s always enriched by Alana’s scholarly knowledge of the period and its people.

In other words, there’s substance beneath the suspense in THE HEARTS OF ALL ON FIRE. So while the book is an entertaining, page-turning mystery, you’ll be enriched by it, too.

Here’s a photo of the first book in Alana’s series. Published in 2012 and re-released this year, The Sign of the Weeping Virgin also features Guid’Antonio and Amerigo Vespucci.

7 thoughts on “A Friend of Mine Has A Book Out and It’s Good

  1. Mike, this is wonderful! Thank you so, so much! Wow, what an insightful review. You understand it. I love that. Just a note—the paperback edition of Weeping Virgin came out in March with my new G’A cover this year…that hardback one is only available through Amazon’s secondary sellers. I can mention that in a comment, if you like. But anyway! I love this and you! Yay!



    Liked by 1 person

  2. Mike, this sounds like one I will devour with pleasure! I especially appreciated your recommendation of Martin Lehfeldt’s delightful book! I have bought four copies and ordering more to give for Christmas gifts. We moved to Atlanta (city of Decatur) in 1967. I can relate to so much—events, locales, people—in that little gem. It is sure to delight friends and family who shared those times with me. CaroleJ

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you so much, Carole. I’m glad you enjoyed Martin’s book. I’ve passed your message along to him. I know he will be thrilled to have such an appreciative reader! Happy Holidays and much love from Ted and me. Mike


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