Reviews

The Many Lives of a 15th-Century Monk

A review of Jo Walton's 'Lent.'

Part of the charm of Jo Walton’s writing is how seriously and pragmatically her characters take their situations, no matter how outlandish. Whether it’s Mori’s exploration of both magic and book-clubs in Among Others or Socrates confronting the ethics of robotic workers in Thessaly, Walton’s authentic treatment of fantastic premises brings depth and humanity to what might otherwise be fun but ludicrous scenarios.

In Walton’s latest novel, Lent, she takes a richly historical, factual account—the rise and fall of Dominican monk, prophet, and would-be reformer Girolamo Savonarola in fifteenth-century Florence—and injects demons, reincarnation, and Groundhog’s Day-like repetition. Faced with shattering, supernatural revelations, Girolamo’s response is refreshingly considered and heartfelt, and his search for solutions among scholarly friends in the politically tumultuous Renaissance uses alternate histories to explore political and religious themes while humanizing an often-villainized character. Winningly anxious, humane, and cerebral, Lent uses its time-loop structure to elevate historical narrative into a thoughtful exploration of character and faith.

With the exception of some easily-exorcised demons, the first half of the novel is pure historical fiction—and barely fictional, at that. Almost every character we meet is a real historical figure, from a period that’s been widely studied and dramatized—key players in Lent, including Savonarola, have recently been portrayed in The Borgias (both Showtime and Netflix versions) and the video game Assassin’s Creed II. Walton’s clearly enjoyed doing her homework, and while she casts her Girolamo in a more forgiving light than many—her endnote defends the Bonfire of the Vanities as “more like Burning Man than a bookburning—a joyful celebration with art set on fire”—the novel initially reads as an only lightly fictionalized account of late fifteenth-century Florence, eager to set up snippets of Platonic dialog about politics and metaphysics.

That historical first half sets the stage for the big twist, which finds Girolamo re-living his life over and over, in a possibly-fruitless quest to save his soul. Initially looking like a chance to explore alternate histories—in one of his first reincarnations, Girolamo avoids charges of heresy and rises to the papacy—this device soon focuses the novel on more human-scale possibilities. In a vein that Walton explored at length in My Real Children, there’s a real poignancy to Girolamo’s memories of his previous lives. In one timeline, a dying Girolamo confuses his friends as he remembers other “real” events, and in each successive life the solitary mourning for those alternate universes weighs heavier on him—events, friendships, and children vanished beyond even a shared grief.

Loop narratives are escape narratives: the protagonists need to get out of the loop itself, or use the loop to chart a path around some terrible event. More science-fictional takes tend to focus on action, with characters learning how the iterative world works until they can line up a good ending like a tricky pool shot—this is the Star Trek strategy in both The Next Generation’s “Cause and Effect” and Discovery’s “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad.” Another approach is to use the loop as a site for some kind of moral or psychological development, perhaps even redemption, as in the more surreal or unexplained worlds of Groundhog Day or Netflix’s Russian Doll. One thing that sets Lent apart is that it explicitly considers both strategies. After brainstorming with his friends and advisers, Girolamo spends his successive lives pursuing both practical solutions—finding the right ritual to take a magical artifact with him to Hell—and more spiritual ends, trying to improve his soul and the world around him.

Time loops run the risk of treating non-looping characters like automatons, just going through the same routine time and again, and time-travel stories often inflate the power of their protagonists: every change to the timeline has massive consequences, intended or not. Lent is far more humble: Girolamo is beset by uncertainty in all his lives. It’s not clear what effect many of his choices have, but it is clear that there are other characters changing things (including an unknown number of other souls who are returning over and over again), and the limits of his knowledge are realistically compounded by the setting—Walton doesn’t gloss over the communication realities of the time, so Girolamo frequently just doesn’t know what’s happening elsewhere.

Walton’s not above having a bit of fun here and there—before he dramatically calls for a horse, for instance, she’s let us know that Crookback, another reincarnating character, was Richard III in the original timeline. There’s also a kind of humor in just how eloquently the Florentine intelligentsia handle the revelation of his nature—when Girolamo apologizes for events from a previous timeline, Marsilio Ficino assures him that “injustices done in futures that have not happened yet and which will not be done again are easily forgiven.” Whether discussing political systems or Girolamo’s situation, however, much of the dialog is quite formal, and, like the Thessaly trilogy, might be a bit off-putting for readers not expecting such earnest philosophical and historical discussion.

This points to the strange line Lent walks, generically. It’s fantasy, but the supernatural elements are of a genuinely Christian scheme, with a little Neo-Platonism thrown in. The plot serves as an alternate history, but it’s more concerned with personal-scale “what if” questions than sociopolitical ones—issues like inequality between the sexes and persecution of homosexuality are noted, but not really investigated or challenged, while events like the Spanish Inquisition and Columbus’s voyage to the New World are touched upon only briefly. Walton’s fans will likely enjoy Lent’s resonances with her other works, though: it shares an intellectual tone with the Thessaly trilogy as well as several characters, thanks to a (different) time-travel mechanic. And, like My Real Children, Lent explores the emotional reality of alternate histories, and celebrates Florence as a site of redemption.

But it’s her skill at character that really shines in Walton’s best work—making the protagonists relatable, somewhat rational, no matter how surreal their situation. The heart of Lent is the invitation to imagine this ambiguous figure, the Mad Monk of Florence, as someone human, conflicted, trying to do the right thing. Girolamo’s literally infernal situation reads as real, as shaking and believable as a terrible medical diagnosis or a death in the family, because of how deeply Walton shows him believing it. While his primary problems might be fantastic—Boschian demons, magicstones, transmigration of souls—he also grapples with frustrations that are anything but speculative: anxiety, depression, crises of faith. Lent will be a treat for anyone with an interest in this period, but it’s this human angle, the way Girolamo slowly bends towards being humble enough to let others help him, that makes the novel come alive.

FICTION—FANTASY
Lent
By Jo Walton
Tor Books
Published May 28, 2019

Jo Walton has published fourteen novels, most recently Lent. She has also published three poetry collections, two essay collections and a short story collection. She won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2002, the World Fantasy Award for Tooth and Claw in 2004, the Hugo and Nebula awards for Among Others in 2012, and in 2014 both the Tiptree Award for My Real Children and the Locus Non Fiction award for What Makes This Book So Great.

1 comment on “The Many Lives of a 15th-Century Monk

  1. Danica Holly

    Thank you for your highly informative and helpful review!

    Liked by 1 person

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