Maria Bordihn’s THE FALCON OF PALERMO is an ambitious biography of an ambitious character. Emperor Frederick II (1194-1250), was known to his contemporaries as Stupor Mundi (the wonder of the world), because he could speak six languages – including Arabic – and had an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. Bucking the mores of 1200s Europe, Frederick was not above making sarcastic comments about religion. His reputation was such that Dante consigned him to the sixth circle of hell, in the tombs of the heretics. The only reason why he wasn’t burned at stake is because he was the most powerful monarch of the time, ruling a territory that included Sicily, Southern Italy, and Germany. He was both Holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily.
So it was with a sense of anticipation that I opened the pages of this novel, because a larger-than-life character would naturally inspire larger-than-life drama in the pages of this novel. No? Unfortunately, not exactly.
What is wonderful about this novel is the delineation of character, especially those of Frederick and his wives, especially his morganatic fourth wife Bianca.
What doesn’t work so well is the method of telling this story. The novel opens in 1194, when Frederick is born, and trundles on through 56 years until he dies in 1250. It is not possible for a novelist to cover this amount of time without resorting to narrative summary. However, the whole novel is cast in this way. What I mean by that is not that there are no scenes (there are plenty of them), but that the scenes are not dramatic enough. There is not enough raw emotion on the page. There is not enough conflict. So Frederick’s larger-than-life character is curiously muted. Which is a pity, because his story lends itself to some memorable screaming matches (which I would have enjoyed)! Four stars.