This is an extravagant, colourful tale of intrigue and adventure in Florence, in the year 1518 of a history not our own, in which Leonardo da Vinci remained in Florence, turning his energies fully to science and technology for the defence and prosperity of the city, and bringing the industrial revolution early to Italy.
The story is told from the viewpoint of Pasquale de Cione Fiesole, a young artist who gets accidentally caught up in the struggle for power between Florence, Rome, and Spain.
Pasquale is befriended by Niccolò Machiavegli, who is down on his luck and working as a journalist, and the two of them investigate murders, uncover secrets, and are pursued by those with secrets to hide. Whenever he has time, Pasquale attempts to continue his promising career as an artist.
There’s still plenty of rubbish churned out in the name of sf, but the average standard of writing in the field has been rising steadily for decades, and a book such as this is evidence of it. It’s no longer necessary to apologize for the quality of writing or characterization in a good modern sf novel: they’ve reached the levels normally found in other branches of literature.
And McAuley seems to have done his homework, researching not only history and science but also the history of art and the techniques used by artists in those days. A lot of work has gone into this book, one way and another.
Following the praise, a mischievous note: I’m not quite sure why, but something about the feel of McAuley’s Florence reminds me slightly of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld city of Ankh-Morpork.
Originally published in Thurb 27 in September 1994