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The Venetian Bargain - Marina Fiorato

About 4 years ago, I visited Venice purely by chance because it was a short distance from Trieste on the Adriatic (a city that attracted my interest, in part, because of its Habsburg past). Ever since, it has been Venice that has held me in thrall. So, when one of my fellow booklovers recently gave me "The Venetian Contract" as a gift, I was curious to see what this book had to offer.


The story begins in Venice during 1576. Plague has descended upon the city-state and its leader, the Doge (who, in an earlier life, had been a Grand Admiral who helped defeat the Ottoman Empire 6 years earlier in the decisive Battle of Lepanto) is in search of a cure. He distrusts the official doctors who hover round him like crows in their austere dark vestments, filled with a conceit that comes from an unassailable belief in their own unique skills in the medical arts/sciences to eradicate all forms of pestilence and disease. The Doge is a devout man, and seeking God's favor, commissions one of Venice's greatest architects (Andrea Palladio) to build a church. For as he expressed to Palladio: "Don't you see? God is punishing Venice. We need an offering, a gift so great that we will turn the edge of the divine anger and stay His hand from smiting our city. If medicine cannot help us, then we must turn to prayer. You, Andrea, you will build a church, on the ruins of the convent of Santa Croce. You will work in the footsteps of Saint Sebastian and build a church so wonderful, so pleasing to the glory of God, that it rivals His creation. And when you are done, the people will come, in their hundreds and thousands, and turn to God; they will praise Him with their voices and thank Him upon their knees. The power of prayer will redeem us all."


In the meantime, across the sea in Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman Empire, there is a young woman, Feyra Adelet bint Timurhan Murad, daughter of a distinguished sea captain, who, in her own right, is a skilled doctor and special servant to Nur Banu, the widow of the late Sultan Selim. Nur Banu dies a slow, agonizing death under mysterious circumstances, but not before disclosing to Feyra a long, hidden personal secret. She also gives Feyra a special piece of jewelry and a set of riddles for her to solve. Nur Banu's son (a greedy, grasping 19 year old who had no great love for his mother, only the desire to rule and exert absolute power over his subjects) becomes Sultan. He seeks to make Feyra his concubine. But before he could bring this about, Feyra manages to escape her family home (which the new Sultan had put under guard) and sneaks aboard a ship headed to Venice with a deadly cargo.


Upon arrival (by stealth, for the ship on which she travelled was on a secret mission for the Sultan) in Venice, Feyra will be plunged into a series of dramatic events in which her life becomes enmeshed with the destiny of a self-assured Dottore (who, with the blessing of the Doge's chief advisor, the Camerlengo, is able to secure the use of a small island for the treatment of people afflicted with the Plague) --- as well as the lives of Palladio and the Doge himself.


This is a story that has all the hallmarks of a lively, heart-stopping novel with elements of love, tragedy, and triumph. The author brings out the character and spirit of Venice that anyone who has travelled there will appreciate. This is a novel that comes HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.