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Book Review: The Enchantress Of Florence by Salman Rushdie

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In our chauvinism the West puts Florence and its renaissance as a place of arts and learning, at the centre of the world when it comes to cultural achievements in the 15th and 16th centuries. Our bias has prevented us from seeing that while supposedly civilized Europe struggled through dark ages of ignorance and plague in the years prior to that enlightenment, empires of sophistication and culture thrived under the rule of sultans and caliphs. The Ottoman Empire had stretched into Spain and by the 1500s their cousins had entered Northern India and established the Mogul Empire.

While we might believe that relations between the West and the Muslim world are tense these days, they are positively cordial when compared with the fervour of Christian hatred for the infidel during the renaissance. However, that did not prevent there being interaction between the two worlds and even the Vatican sent representatives to the court of Akabar the Great, the heart of the Mogul empire. Still, there would be no reason to suspect any connection existing between Florence and Akabar's capital of Sikri.

Yet in his elaborate work of historical fantasy, The Enchantress Of Florence, published by Random House Canada, and being released in trade paperback January 6th 2009, Salman Rushdie weaves together strands of fiction and history to tell a tale of how these two cities might have been linked. It is the story of three childhood friends from Florence whose love and loyalty stands the test of time and of two great cities equally capable of grandeur and self-destruction. Yet, it's also the tale of a remarkable woman's quest to make her own way in a man's world and how the reverberations of her efforts shattered kingdoms, defeated generals, and brought about the ruin of one of the two great cities.
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The court of Akabar the Great is thrown into confusion when a mysterious blond stranger shows up at court. At first he attempts to pass himself off as the ambassador from the English queen Elizabeth, but when that ruse is seen through he finally reveals the truth of the matter. He is none other then Akabar the Great's uncle. At first this news is greeted with the derision that any lie deserves, but being the just ruler he is, Akabar gives the blond stranger a chance to tell him how it could be possible for a non-believer from Florence to be his relative.

So begins the story of the princess whom history forgot, Lady Black Eyes, Qara Koz. When her elder sister was wed to the Wormwood Khan as the cost of preserving her father's life, Qara Koz was dragged off into exile as her companion at the tender age of eleven. Eight years later when the Shah of Persia, their father's cousin, overthrew the great Khan, he offered to send both women back to their home, but surprisingly the young princess refused and elected to stay with their saviour as his wife. It was then that Akabar's grandfather, father to the sisters, caused her to be written out of the annals of the family's history – and Qara Koz was a name never spoken in public again.

In Florence there were three young friends, of whom one was destined to wander long and far before returning home again to die in the streets where he was born. Niccolo Machiavelli (the author of The Prince), Ago Vespucci (cousin of Amerigo whose name now graces our continent), and Antonino Argalia, were inseparable until the age of eleven when Antonino's mother died of plague and his father fell into the depths of depression. The young Argalia took it upon himself to leave Florence to seek his fortune among the mercenary companies fighting the "cursed Turk", although he said to his friends he wouldn't care if he made his fortune fighting for the Ottomans or against them.

Which is how years latter he found himself leading the armies of the Ottoman Empire when they defeated the Shah of Persia, and found himself face to face with the beauty of Lady Black Eyes. She had accompanied her husband the Shah to the battle field, but when he refused to follow her advice and attack the Turks before they were encamped (it wouldn't have been honourable) she turned her back so as not to see the carnage. As a result she did not see her husband flee the battle field and abandon her to his vanquisher, Argalia of the Turks.
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There's a lot to wonder at when reading The Enchantress Of Florence, not the least is the way in which Rushdie makes the seemingly implausible perfectly reasonable, with the remarkable tale of how a Florentine could be the uncle of Akabar, emperor of the Mogul Empire in India. Yet that pales in the face of what I consider his even greater accomplishment – bringing to life the two worlds in which the story takes place. Not only does he render both Florence and Sikri with such accurate brush strokes that we can see them in front of us as if he had painted their pictures, it's the manner in which he describes them that makes them fully alive.

Rushdie has developed a different language for each city, so that each is not only distinguished by their physical characteristics, but by the way they sound to our ear as well. Sikri flows like elegant silk draped over the arm of a beautiful woman, but with an undercurrent of danger that reminds you how quickly a scarf can be twisted to form the garrotte that cuts off a person's life. There is an assurance to her voice that only comes from years of experience and the surety of knowing everyone will listen to you no matter how quiet you whisper.

Florence is brash and bold, with a voice to match as she trumpets forth both her successes and her failures. Yet, in spite of the traces of insecurity that one hears in her proclamations of greatness, you can't help but notice the subtle notes that twist underneath the blare. It is the home of the infamous Medici after all, who smile to your face while plunging a dagger in your back, and whose most famous son became Pope. However, in the end the cities are still only the backdrop for the woman who was the Enchantress of Florence, and the bewitcher of every man, and not a few women, who came in contact with her.

In Lady Black Eyes, the princess whom history forgot, Qara Koz, Rushdie has created one of the most enigmatic and romantic female characters since Sheherazade. For its around that one strand that Rushdie has woven his entire story and creates the elaborate web which eventually snares all his characters and us his readers. For not only is she able to enchant all of Florence by her presence, just by telling her story, the blond stranger claiming kinship with Akabar, brings Sikri to its knees.

The Enchantress Of Florence is a beautiful story that in delineating the differences between renaissance Italy and the Mogul Empire actually brings East and West closer together than anything I've read before. With guest appearances by everyone from Vlad the Impaler to the Medici Pope, Rushdie has created a historical fantasy that's both a pleasure to read and an education in its recreation of two of history's most fascinating cities.

You can purchase a copy of The Enchantress Of Florence in trade paperback format as of January 6th directly from Random House Canada or an on line retailer like Amazon.ca.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.