A novel set in Renaissance Florence and Hell

Jo Walton’s LENT (2019) is a historical fantasy novel set partly in Renaissance Florence and party in Hell.

The protagonist is the Dominican monk, Girolamo Savonarola, who attempted a moral and spiritual revolution in Florence in the 1490s, but was burned at the stake for heresy.

Walton’s novel is partly an attempt to rehabilitate Savonarola’s reputation.  He is remembered as a religious fanatic who organized a Bonfire of the Vanities, in which the population of Florence consigned everything to the flames that was frivolous and distracted them from God.

But she shows him as a Renaissance humanist, a close friend of Pico della Mirandola, and a sincere religious  reformer, although not, as sometimes depicted, a forerunner of Protestantism.

The novel begins in 1492 with Savonarola exorcising demons, which in the novel are all too real, and then visiting Lorenzo the Magnificent on his deathbed, where he is given a mysterious talisman.  It follows his life to 1498, when he is tortured and killed, and learns that he is a damned soul in Hell, condemned to eternally repeat his life.

He returns to 1492 again and again, trying to make his life turn out better for himself and for Florence.  The novel reminds me of the movie “Groundhog Day” and of Ken Grimwood’s SF novel Replay.

The novel is based on an original and interesting premise, which is well-executed.  I’m not sure why I don’t like it better than I do.  Maybe it’s because the cruelty and terror of Hell and the Inquisition are so much in the foreground that they detract from the glories of the Renaissance.

While I’m writing about Jo Walton, I’ll use the opportunity to recommend her Thessaly trilogy – The Just City, The Philosopher Kings and Necessity.

It is set in a universe in which Greek mythology is real and the time-traveling goddess Athena sets up the conditions to create Plato’s Republic in real life, with Platonists from all eras of history, orphan slave children, robot slaves and also Socrates and the god Apollo reincarnated as a human being just to see what being human was like.

 I read the Thessaly novels novels with pleasure as well as interest, and probably will re-read them some day.

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