The Venetian Bargain
I’ve read books that keep me up at night for a variety of reasons. This one certainly kept me up – by sucking me into a gripping plot and also by scaring me with reminders of the realities of life in the past. This book, about a pair of physicians (he is Italian, she is Muslim Ottoman) battling an outbreak of plague in Venice, is no cheerful wallpaper read. But if you’re looking for something detailed and intense – a Renaissance version of the movie Outbreak – then The Venetian Bargain is definitely the book for you.
Feyra Adelet bint Timurhan Murad, trained in medicine at the Sultan’s palace in Constantinople, finds herself swept up in an Ottoman plot to send a ship infected with plague to Venice. Annibale Cason, an ambitious, arrogant recent medical graduate from the university in Padua, also comes to Venice to battle the plague, and the two join forces. While I labeled this book a Renaissance romance due to its setting and HEA, it reads more like fiction with strong romantic elements. The hero and heroine don’t meet until about halfway through the book. I have a lot more to say about the setting than I do about their romance, which is basically “two colleagues from different backgrounds respect each other and gradually fall in love.” I’m not complaining about that (it’s better than “two people hate each other and then suddenly are in love OMG”) but this is not a book to be read primarily for the romance.
What distinguished The Venetian Bargain for me was the setting. The third main character of this book is plague. Epidemic diseases unnerve me anyway, but the author also did an excellent job of making me feel the claustrophobic terror of a disease which could not be reliably prevented or cured. In one particularly disturbing scene, a corrupt plague doctor shilling fraudulent medicine jokes that the best customers are women with infants, because they will pay anything to try to keep their babies alive. Imagining that desperate helplessness made me feel nauseated.
The book is filled with interesting authentic historical figures, from the Italian-born Ottoman sultana Nur Banu to the architect Andrea Palladio. All are integrated into the story smoothly enough that I had to look them up to see if they were fictional or real. Both historical and fictional characters behave like people from another place and time. Feyra, thinking about her father, reflects, “He beat her when she crossed him – for which she held him no grudge, for what father did not beat his daughters?” Feyra and Annibale don’t fall into the common trap of historical doctors who magically know modern practices. Annibale, for instance, believes firmly in leeching and the four humors. Feyra’s Islam is not marginalized, as religions often are in non-inspirational fiction. When possible, she goes veiled, and she avoids Christian consecrated spaces like churches and cloisters. The clothing is meticulously researched, as are setting details like smells, architecture, and cuisine.
The author was more effective in establishing an overall mood than in conveying details. I didn’t understand why some plague patients seemed to be ill for weeks or even months, while others died within days.This may be historically accurate, but if so, it needed to be discussed by the physicians. The author also failed to adequately narrate the horrors of a Cesarean birth without anesthesia. On top of that, she had the mother survive (two hundred years ahead of the earliest such documented case) and fall pregnant again within a few months. Neither doctor expressed the slightest concern, and the woman delivered the subsequent baby easily and off camera.That was jarring.
The writing had ups and downs. At one point, the architect Palladio tells the Doge of Venice that he is familiar with the story of a miracle, and then the Doge tells him the story anyway, because somebody has to tell the reader. It would have been better for that story to be told inside the architect’s head. A central conceit of the story is that the plot against Venice is described to Feyra in a metaphor of four horses. Any reader with rudimentary pop culture-level knowledge of Christianity will know immediately that this is the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. While it’s understandable that Feyra does not realize this, the author presumes we won’t recognize it, either, and when I did, the tension she tried to build around this “mystery” fell flat. But there are clever moments, too: a guard waited “below the golden inscription of past Sultans’ wisdom on the architrave (for the new Sultan, Feyra understood, had little wisdom to speak of, let alone inscribe in gold).”
I’m in the odd position of having a book which I think is good enough that I’d recommend it to people, and yet I know for certain I will never read it again. While vivid, it wasn’t enjoyable in the uplifting and cathartic way I typically want from my romance novels. As a historian, I tend to save my darker reading for nonfiction. Still, it’s a well-executed and immersive look into an unusual setting.