I was hesitant to pick this up because it’s written in first person, present tense; I’m not much of a fan of either of those. It didn’t surprise me that I was having a hard time getting into the story. I don’t know what happened, but when I picked it up again the next day, I couldn’t put it down. Jo Walton might be a bit of a miracle worker for that.
Lent is basically a fictionalized version of 1492-1498 Florence, Italy. The city was undergoing some big civil shifts, and there were external threats as well. The novel opens with the death-bed of Lorenzo Medici and goes until the execution of Girolamo Savonarola. Giovanni Pico della Mirandola also appears. The basic premise is similar to a Groundhog’s Day scenario, where the main character from whose perspective the story is told ends up repeating the series of events until he finds a way to break the pattern of ending up dying and going to Hell. The going to Hell part isn’t terribly surprising in some ways based on history’s general view of this individual, but the fact that in the novel he goes there because he’s actually a demon who really missed God and a life of faith is an interesting twist. I think it probably helps that I knew a little bit about this time and place before hand, because I could follow what was going on and why, and it made some of the twists more interesting.
The first iteration basically matches historical events, but each repetition (of which we are told less and less each time) and small tweaks to history made in effort to change the general outcome, including who dies and who survives, is sometimes interesting, sometimes not.
In a way the narrative style really does make sense since the main character eventually figures out he’s repeating a life and tries to use his awareness of his past lives to change his possible future, so he’s always trying to focus on the present but is not an omniscient narrator.
Not everyone or everything is pure history though with a dash of fantasy; Count Pico (his preferred way of being addressed) has a girlfriend in the first go-round named Isabella who is probably not real exactly, but could have been based on a real scenario. She ends up becoming important in some of the versions of the story, although I’m not entirely sure I like the second to last one. She’s independent, has dreams, but because of the world she lives in, she has to struggle to make a life for herself. Sometimes she gets what she wants, other times, less so. Lucrezia de’Medici Salviati also has a minor part in some of the variations, and there should totally be more of her. She, like Isabella, is a smart capable woman in a time when women weren’t supposed to be those things, but unlike Isabella, Lucrezia comes from money and power, and can be educated and smart in public, nearly always while pregnant.
For the characters, perspectives, and interesting possibilities about the nature of history, theology, and philosophy (all of which are a tad underdeveloped, but it still works), I’m glad I got through this. It’s not something I think is especially re-readable, but still, I’m not sorry I read it.