Pieces Form the Whole — a Review of “Sistine Heresy” by Justine Saracen

27 02 2012

This is a review of “Sistine Heresy” by Justine Saracen, but a little background first.  I’m an author as well as a reader (hmm, it should be understood that all authors are readers! 🙂 ), and I posted a review of “Third,” my most recent release, on Facebook. Justine Saracen, whom I’d really had no dealings with up to that point, commented on the review. We got to talking about how sales of both our books were on the low side. Reasons could be aplenty (for example, “Third” is quite cross-genre: lesbian fiction, nontraditional romance as in polyamory, time travel and historical fiction),  but Justine said historical fiction, including her book “Sistine Heresy,” tends to not sell so well in lesfic. We made a deal that we’d buy each other’s books. I love the Borgias, so I was eager to read the book (see a review I did here on a couple of Borgia books).

So, fast forward a few weeks later. “Sistine Heresy” is a great book, actually a bit (or a lot) of an anomaly from lesfic publishers, and I decided I’d review it for this blog. That fact alone says a lot, because I’m usually hesitant to review lesfic books on this blog. I’m a lesfic author myself, and I don’t want to risk alienating anyone by saying something the least bit negative. I was a bit off about one thing, though. “Sistine Heresy” really isn’t a Borgia book. Borgias are tangential, and while one of the main characters is a Borgia by marriage, she’s fictional. She never existed. This isn’t the book to read if you’re craving Borgia yumminess.

OK, so here’s the “Sistine Heresy” blurb on its Amazon page:  Eros, art, and gorgeous blasphemy… Adrianna Borgia, survivor of the Borgia court, presents Michelangelo with the greatest temptations of his life while struggling herself with soul-threatening desires and heresies. Her growing passion for the painter Raphaela Bramante mirrors the sculptor’s damnable interest in a castrato in the Sistine choir and in the ideas of secular humanism. Claimed as the epitome of Christian inspiration, Michelangelo’s ceiling is revealed as a coup of Eros upon religion, a gorgeous blasphemy and a paean to forbidden love in the very heart of the Church.

So, it’s pretty  obvious the book isn’t a romance. Also, while Bold Strokes Books puts out gay men’s fiction, it’s known primarily as a lesfic publisher. “Sistine Heresy” is just as much, if not more so, a gay men’s story than a lesbian story.

“Sistine Heresy” isn’t an easy book, and I mean that in the best way because it comes together in the end to reveal the purpose of all the individual pieces that may have seemed extraneous. For example, the book is told from many, many points of view, although the POVs of Adriana Borgia (a fictional woman) and of Michelangelo help anchor it (Adriana is a bit more dominant POV-wise than Michelangelo). There are scenes, such as a meeting between Pope Julius II and Alfonso d’ Este, Duke of Ferrara, that had me puzzling over their points. Why bother to show these scenes?

“Sistine Heresy” is a book, but in many ways, it’s like a giant painting. I have to think the author did this on purpose because of the book’s subject matter. Purposeful or not, it’s a brilliant move. If you look at only one piece of a painting, you might not understand that piece’s point until you’ve looked at the painting as a whole. The pieces come together, the purpose is clear, everything clicks. This could also be an allegory for people who believe in God; He behaves in mysterious ways. You don’t know His purpose because you’re only such a tiny part of the whole.

If you like costume dramas (think “Rome,” “The Tudors” and the two Borgia shows), you’ll probably like this book. It reads in many ways like a TV show: the multiple POVs, for example, and the vast lineup of characters. “Sistine Heresy” reminds me most of “Rome” because “Rome” had a lesbian subplot (a nice one that surprised me in a good way, because I hadn’t known it was coming), but the subplot was only one cog in the machine.

“Sistine Heresy” isn’t a lesbian book or a gay book, although many of its characters tilt that way. It’s really a book about people trying to reconcile their physical desires, their faith in God and a corrupt church. Both Michelangelo and Adriana, in the end, find their ways to do this, but in vastly different methods. For Adriana, slow and steady wins the race. It takes a great tragedy for her to wake up to what she needs to do.  Would’ve been nice if she could’ve done it without the tragedy, but it is what it is.

Just a few quibbles with this book: there’s a bit too much “As you know, Bob” dialogue, and okay, heck, yeah, I wanted to see more “relations” between Adriana and Lucrezia Borgia. 😉

This book gets my recommendation fo’ sho.
** Edited to add another quibble: yeah, the celeb walk-ons did seem unnecessary.

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