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Bellarion    by Rafael Sabatini order for
by Rafael Sabatini
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Common Reader, 2002 (1926)
Hardcover, Softcover

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Half-god, half-beast, the Princess Valeria once described him, without suspecting that the phrase describes not merely Bellarion, but Man.

So begins the story of a young man, who rose from obscure parentage and a cloistered childhood to become a famed Italian condottiero in the early fifteenth century; a youth innocent of experience but born to war as his name suggests. Bellarion has been the favorite novel of three generations of my family so far. The book's hero shares characteristics of other well-known fictional characters. Bellarion is introduced to his readers as an innocent like Candide and falls in and out of trouble in a similar fashion; he is as brilliant and logical a strategist as Horatio Hornblower; and he is as misunderstood by the princess whom he serves as Darcy by Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice.

Bellarion was born in 1384, plucked out of a land at war by a 'big, bearded man in steel and leather' and deposited in a monastery, where he read prodigiously and confounded the abbott who raised him with the heretical belief that there can be no such thing as sin. He leaves 'in quest of deeper wells of learning to slake his hot intellectual thirst' and falls in with a villainous friar who robs and betrays him. Fleeing false arrest, Bellarion enters a palace garden through a surprisingly unlocked door and so blunders into the middle of a conspiracy and a quest that will consume him.

In the grounds he meets the Princess Valeria 'and the vision of her in the breathless moment was destined never to fade from Bellarion's mind.' Thus begins a Romance in the old sense of the word, in which Bellarion puts the princess on a pedestal and persists in working for her, while she, being 'not good at inference', just as consistently distrusts and despises him. He introduces himself as 'a poor scholar on his travels, studying life at first hand and a trifle more rapidly than he can digest it' and offers to help her in her intrigues in place of the expected messenger who did not arrive. He is entangled in conspiracies as an agent and double agent, saying 'Risk sweetens enterprise ... and wit can conquer it.'

To save his life, Bellarion claims to be the son of the great mercenary soldier Facino Cane and, to his dismay is brought face-to-face with his adopted father. To the question of who was his mother, Bellarion admits that he 'overstated the relationship' and that he had done the adopting. Fortunately, Facino has a sense of humor, fiction becomes fact and the great condottiero inducts his adopted son in the business of war. He discovers that he has a brilliant pupil whose strategic skills soon outstrip those of his mentor.

Bellarion's successes quickly gain him fame and fortune, which he applies in Valeria's service, while she remains oblivious and even sides with his enemies. When he achieves his goal and the misunderstandings are cleared up, he is asked if there is anything that he covets. Still the innocent he replies 'Nothing within my reach. To covet things beyond it is to taste the full bitterness of life.' When pressed he admits that there is 'One thing that would change into a living glory the tinsel glitter of the world' - he has certainly proved that he deserves to win it.

Bellarion presents a marvellous tapestry of medieval Italy, full of color, pageantry and page-turning treachery. Its chessmaster hero applies the same skills to intrigue as to war. He is innocent and ruthless, brilliant and naive, a romantic and a realist. He is perhaps too intelligent for his times, which is why the calm of the cloister calls him to the very end. If you take any pleasure in historical novels, acquire or borrow this one. Bellarion is a must read for the genre.

Note: This book has been issued as both Bellarion, and as Bellarion the Fortunate. It is available from rare book stores or (in softcover) from A Common Reader.

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