It is a fact that in his letters to the Christians of Corinth, St Paul refers to an earlier letter or letters he had sent them, and the author takes that as her starting point in this outstanding medieval mystery.
The story is set in Siena in the year 1339, but the Prologue takes us back a further five hundred years to the iconoclasts of the Byzantine Church in Constantinople. These people, extreme puritans, were intent on destroying all ‘graven images’, and that meant not only statues and icons but also illuminated manuscripts, the beautifully illustrated copies of Biblical and other texts that, thankfully, were always reverently preserved in other parts of Christendom. In the Prologue, a man is arrested and sent to the stake to be burnt to ashes along with the Bible that he has spent years copying out and illustrating; but in the last moments, some pages are torn out and saved by his apprentice, who carries them west to Italy.
There they disappear from sight, as well they might, for they are part of a non-canonical book, the earlier letter of Paul to the Corinthians, and the illustrations are, or become, a visual prophecy of a movement, a group of people, the Gifted, each one of whom has to a special extent one of the gifts (such as the gift of healing) mentioned by Paul in his other letters.
Now, in 1339, the prophecy is being fulfilled. Lady Daria d’Angelo of Siena discovers that she has the gift of healing, and from then on her whole life changes. But the group who gather around her are opposed by another group whose leader is a nobleman in league with the Devil, a group that has already committed human sacrifice in the catacombs beneath the city of Rome. And in the background, aware of the prophecy and observing events, are Cardinal Boeri and the Bishop of Rome. Yes, the Bishop of Rome, for this story takes place during the period when the papacy was resident in Avignon, France, and these two men dream of bringing it back home to Italy. They believe they can use the Gifted, once they are established and revealed, to defeat the sorcerer and bring glory to Rome.
The Begotten is well written, the characters are authentic and memorable, and the atmosphere is perfect. This I am sure is how Toscana was as that time: we even have the painter Lorenzetti Ambrogio (1290-1348) painting the frescoes in the Hall of the Nine (you can still see them in the Palazzo Pubblico if you happen to be passing that way!) Here he is Daria’s childhood friend, a man she trusts when there is treachery all around her.
I am very much looking forward to reading the two sequels, The Betrayed and The Blessed. So don’t be put off by what I am about to say next: If you are going to use any part of the “thou – thee – thy – thine” group of words, the old second person singular, then at least within one sentence, one utterance, you must not mix them up with “you”. But what happens here? I quote:
“You may count on me as thy protector “
“Vincenzo, you have kept thy promise “
“If you do not bid thy bride farewell, you will …”
“Fare thee well, Tatiana. I have loved you “
“I thank you for thy kind words, Brogi “
“I thank thee for thy sworn fealty. You may rise “
The errors are not even consistent: compare the last two lines quoted, “I thank thee for thy” and “I thank you for thy”; and consider the refusal to use “thou” along with “thy” in the first three examples, and compare it with this, where “thou” is used but not “thy”:
“… thou will find your thirst quenched … thou will find your bones warmed … “
And then there is the problem of the verb form to be used with “thou” as in the above “thou will” and in, for example:
“Do what thou wish with my bones “
Please! Thou wilt find new life Do what thou wishest with my bones
Fine writing spoilt by careless editing.
And while we are on the subject of careless editing, there are some vocabulary slips, too. One that irritated me enough for me to note it down was “You may abide with us for as long as you deign necessary.” Come on! – as long as you deem necessary. And this is from people who no doubt would not deign to read a self-published “unedited” novel.