Venetian Masque

In Rafael Sabatini's Venetian Masque, a dispossessed French nobleman named Marc-Antoine de Saulx bribes an official to escape the guillotine and tries to persuade Venice to join Austria in its war against the French Republic. A chance meeting and a case of mistaken identity leave Marc posing as a double agent for both England and France.

While he hopes that the monarchy will be restored in his home country, he also travels to Venice with a more personal goal in mind. But the woman he loves, thinking he'd been executed, has already agreed to a political marriage with a sketchy but influential aristocrat. And if that wasn't already hard enough to deal with, this unexpected rival has been spending a lot of time with a beautiful spy who claims that she's Marc's widow.

The plot has a lot of great twists, and every time I thought I saw a way out for Marc he wound up in the middle of some fresh disaster. He's constantly forced to justify himself to both sides of the conflict, making compromises for the sake of his larger goals. He also feels like a more multi-faceted hero than some of Sabatini's other leads, partly because his sympathies don't always line up with his loyalties. His support of the monarchist cause, for example, doesn't blind him to aristocratic excesses.

And then there's that duel. There's usually a duel in these stories, but this one is fantastic. The gradual insults and obstacles that build before it are full of dry humor, and they lead to a satisfying reveal later on. The fight is described well without feeling too long or technical. It's enough to make me think that every book should have a duel.

"What have you done, monsieur?" she wailed. "What have you done?"

"I could answer you better if I knew for whom you are concerned; for me or for him."

"I am concerned for you both."

"Be reassured, then. We shall not both die."

I liked that the antagonists had solid motives for what they did, and the passages from Vendramin's point of view were especially entertaining. The heroine, Isotta, might have felt a little too passive if she hadn't shown enough courage to defy expectations from time to time. Watching her struggle between love and duty made her easy to sympathize with. Even a few of the minor characters were memorable thanks to the bravery and good humor they showed.

One of my favorite aspects was the city itself. Venice came across as beautiful and troubled and decadent, and the events of the story felt as if they mattered even though I knew how Marc's efforts were bound to end. I've read too many novels that just plop characters down in the Reign of Terror (or some other weighty event) and expect those outside events to do most of the heavy dramatic lifting, so it's nice to read something that feels worthy of its powerful setting.

My only real criticism is that, as with some of Sabatini's other books, the historical side of things sometimes felt dense, and that may turn some readers off. A lot of the big-picture stuff worked well, like the out-of-touch political leaders or the tension between Napoleon and his civilian leadership. But sometimes the book strayed into a level of detail that slowed down the adventure. It worked for me more often than it didn't though, and the final few chapters flew by.

Here's a link to my Sabatini book list, where I'll be linking any further posts about his work. The painting above is The Grand Canal and the Church of the Salute, painted in 1730 by Canaletto.

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