Friday, May 3, 2024

Review: The Borgia Dove by Jo Graham

The second in a historical fantasy series centering about Giulia Farnese, mistress to Cardinal Rodrigo of the Borgia family. Yes, that Borgia family.

The first book in Jo Graham’s series, A Blackened Mirror, introduced us to the upbringing and early life of Giulia from a historical fantasy perspective. While the actual woman in history is her basis, Graham leavened her upbringing by making her a virginal (and kept deliberately so) seer, and used in magical rites amongst the scheme of factions seeking control of the Papacy in late 15th century Italy. That book ended with Giulia firmly as the concubine of the powerful and alluring Rodrigo Borgia, a man whose ambitions are to become the next Pope.

The Borgia Dove continues this story.

The year is 1492. Columbus has just started to sail the ocean blue, but has not yet reached the Americas, but he will, in a couple of months. What is also going to happen in even shorter order is Pope Innocent III is going to die. Rodrigo, now in his early 60’s, sees this as his last and best hope to become Pope. Giulia, as his mistress, wants to help him, not only because he is her lover, but the humanist side of the Church is far more appealing to her than the more traditional and conservative factions led by Rodrigo’s enemy Cardinal Della Rovere. But no longer a virgin, Giulia no longer has magic powers, and so to help Rodrigo, must cultivate other forms of power to help him succeed in the Conclave, and survive the deadly politics of 15th century Rome.

And so a story is told.

You probably have heard of the Borgias before, and may have seen, for example, the Showtime series The Borgias, with Jeremy Irons as the titular character. Giulia Farnese is an important secondary character in that series, even as it focuses on the Borgias more directly. Here, by making Giulia the primary focus, we get a look at events that are covered in the premiere episode of that series, but with Giulia’s perspective.

With Giulia as the focus, we do get Rodrigo as a major secondary character, as well as other Borgias and the other major characters in late 15th century Rome. Yes, the infamous Lucrezia Borgia is here, but she’s a 12 year old girl. She’s curious, bright, intelligent, and devoted to her father’s success. She is, at this stage in her life, nothing like what her infamy brought her. Also note the aforementioned Showtime series definitely aged her up. She also is, in this novel, most definitely Giulia’s protégé. Giulia may only be eighteen herself (again, the show aged her up), but she provides a female role model for Lucrezia. And their interactions are among the most delightful in the book.

Also, let’s talk about the fantastic elements, since the book does provide more than a patina of historical fantasy that Graham started in the first book. For while she may not think she is a magical “Dove” anymore, Giulia soon learns that while she thought she was finished with magic once she became Rodrigo’s lover, magic, and the higher powers, are not finished with her. Both those who would support her, and those who would seek to tear her down.

It’s a very sensual and sensuous book, and readers of Graham before are not going to be surprised by this. Not just sexual and carnal pleasures, mind you, but the entire world is brought with all the senses in mind. We get to feel, to smell, to taste, to see and to touch the late 15th century Rome that Giulia inhabits. The charm of having breakfast with a friend, spreading soft cheese over bread. The deadly darkness of the streets of Rome at night. The elegant seductiveness of a dance and a party. And much more. Graham’s writing brings us into Giulia’s world, life, passions and desires in a fully immersive way.

There is a lot of talk in SFF circles these days about romantasy: fantasy with a strong romance focus and theme. Although this novel does not claim that title, I think that this novel definitely would qualify for those looking for such work. Giulia is plainly in a romantic relationship with Rodrigo and considers him the love of her life, quite loyally so. Time and again, people outside her think she is in it for the money alone (the simony of the Borgias is portrayed as being part and parcel of the times and is not judged too negatively thereby), and Giulia insists, to others and to herself that she is not. And indeed, we see opportunities where Giulia could, if her heart was truly for gold and not Rodrigo, where she could “feather her own nest” and she does not take them.

Yes, some readers may find it distasteful that Giulia is indeed a third of Rodrigo’s age, and indeed, that does get brought up in the book as well. Graham shows this as a meeting of minds as well as hearts and souls. Together, on all three strands, she depicts Giulia and Rodrigo coming together, the Dove and the Bull (The Bull is a symbol of House Borgia). It may be a May-December romance, but the author makes it believable and more importantly, sympathetic to the reader.

And Giulia is a person a lot of readers can relate with. She’s curious, intelligent, loves to read, and seeks out books. Not just magical books, as part of the fantastic elements of this novel, but just books in general, in a world that Gutenberg has not yet set aflame with his invention. Giulia loves literacy, thought and that way of transmitting knowledge and story and that love comes across the page to us. One could easily imagine sitting to a lunch with Giulia and discussing Plutarch, Dante, and more. The novel is also full of allusions and references to books and writers for the savvy reader to discover.

Graham has done an excellent job here in making The Borgia Dove a standalone novel even as it builds on the life of Giulia and her upbringing from the first novel. While I would never want to turn you away from reading the first book, if you wanted to start the series here (perhaps you are a fan of Jeremy Irons’ portrayal or the whole very cut and thrust life of the Borgias), or just have limited time, I think you completely and utterly could begin here. Unlike the first book, which takes place over a number of years as Giulia grows up, learns who and what she is, and gets plunged into matters, the focus of this book, time-wise, is much narrower. Much of the book takes place during the week or so of that Papal Enclave that, spoilers for 500 years ago, will make Rodrigo into Pope Alexander VI. But what Giulia’s story brings to a story already told is her, female perspective, and the secret magical history of those who would oppose and cast down Rodrigo, and what Giulia must do, and is willing to do, in order to preserve her lover’s life, power and position.

Given the complex richness of Giulia’s life, and of course now the whole Borgia project, I look forward to what Graham will do in the third volume. I think it will be a challenge, since as hazy as history goes for most people, the Borgias are a name that still involve a lot of negativity and while the first two books have focused specifically on Giulia and kept people like the young Lucrezia in minor roles, going forward with the series means Graham will have an uphill climb in further changing people’s perceptions of Rodrigo, Lucrezia and the rest. I look forward to seeing how she takes on this challenge.


  • 15th Century Rome and Papal Politics strongly on display
  • Giulia Farnese is a captivating character to capture your heart and mind
  • Sensuous and immersive writing to bring you into Giulia’s world.

Reference: Graham, Jo, The Borgia Dove, [Candlemark and Gleam, 2024]

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.