THE SERPENT & THE PEARL by Kate Quinn, narrated by Leila Birch (Carmelina), Maria Elena Infantino (Giulia) & Ronan Vibert (Leonello)

Kate Quinn is such a talented writer. THE SERPENT & THE PEARL (the first in a duology about the Borgia Pope Alexander VI in 1490s Rome) begins with a sniff. Carmelina is a cook, and she follows her nose quite literally. Immediately we are grabbed by the point-of-view of this hurricane of a woman who whips all the men of the kitchen into shape.

But Carmelina is not a one-dimensional hurricane. She has a past. She has done something so dreadful, that if she were caught, her punishment would be so unbearable that the thought of it makes her dissolve with fear. Carmelina does very well for herself, becoming the favorite cook of Giulia Farnese, the teenaged mistress of 60-something Pope Alexander VI aka Rodrigo Borgia. Giulia has a sweet tooth and is particularly fond of Carmelina’s tortes. Everything is peaches & cream for Carmelina, until Giulia’s bodyguard Leonello (based on Tyrion Lannister) puts two and two together, and realizes that Carmelina is an escaped nun.

These three POV characters are wonderfully vivid, and so enjoyable. Giulia is luscious, sweet & extremely good at managing Rodrigo Borgia. Carmelina’s prickliness and tart tongue hides real terror. And Leonello, with his spiteful tongue would normally turn everyone off, were it not for the fact that his lines are so good, and his intelligence so gripping. Minor characters are also delineated in sure strokes, such as Cesare Borgia who trails menace in his wake.

The only problem I had with this novel is that it is a bit repetitive. We open with the wedding feast of Giulia Farnese, which is marvelous. But too soon, we are embroiled in the wedding feast of Lucrezia Borgia. Why was it necessary to portray TWO wedding feasts in such detail?? I think this volume would have been improved if Lucrezia’s wedding could have been edited or cut as I’m don’t think it contributed much to the story and the information it did provide would have been more useful elsewhere in the novel. Four stars.