Maybe it sounds perverse, especially if you prefer digital books, but I tend to weigh down my summer travel bag with a big, fat novel — fiction I know will be good for the long haul, be it a delay-prone plane trip or a seemingly endless stretch of rainy days at the beach. These three books, though very different in style and intent, easily fall into that category.
For those who are well versed in the Jan. 6 congressional hearings, Antonio Scurati’s mammoth novel about the rise of Benito Mussolini will set off all kinds of alarm bells. A best seller in Italy, M: Son of the Century (Harper, 773 pp., $35) has now been translated into English by Anne Milano Appel, and while you may need to keep checking the 10-page list of principal characters, its themes will be all too familiar.
Set between 1919 and 1925, Scurati’s narrative blends recreated scenes with period sources and quotations to show how post-World War I Italy was plunged into the sort of economic and social turmoil its conventional political parties were unable to contain. Enter the rabble-rousing leader of an “anti-party” that avoids “the encumbrances of consistency, the dead weight of principles.” This almost bankrupt, deeply manipulative womanizer will pursue any path to power: “Negotiate with everybody, betray everybody.”
How do Mussolini’s Fascists evolve, in just a few years, from a disgruntled group of fewer than a hundred war veterans into a popular movement ready to seize the national stage? Fear and violence play their parts. Also theatrical posturing and bombastic oratory. Some crucial tinkering with the electoral laws. The self-interest (and self-delusion) of career politicians. Most upsetting, though, is the appeal of an autocrat to the blindly loyal masses: “They are ready to kiss the shoes of any new master as long as they too are given someone to trample on.”
Fourteenth-century Europe, devastated by the plague and beset by the warring armies of England and France, offers another turbulent fictional setting. But the knight-errant at the center of Boyd and Beth Morrison’s rollicking adventure, THE LAWLESS LAND (Head of Zeus, 474 pp., $29.95), is a fittingly valiant paragon of chivalric virtue. Early on, while rescuing a damsel very much in distress, Gerard Fox explains that his personal story is “full of murder, intrigue and treachery of the worst sort.” As well as the occasional jolt of inappropriately modern chat (“I’m not the only one who is on to you”) that’s best ignored while surrendering to the inventive twists and turns of a satisfyingly bustling plot.
Fox is a medieval action hero, tussling with not one but three villains, along with platoons of knights and hangers-on. There’s a devious cardinal scheming to become pope, an avaricious English nobleman intent on being named king of Jerusalem and a baseborn Frenchman who will do anything to achieve the noble title he’s sure he deserves. Key to all their machinations is a holy relic said to be the most valuable in Christendom. Of course, the woman sworn to safeguard this precious item is the aforementioned damsel — who, despite her predicament, turns out to be something of an action hero herself.
The narrator of Francesca Stanfill’s THE FALCON’S EYES (Harper, 820 pp., $32.50) longs for an independent life, but the realities of 12th-century Europe dictate otherwise. Isabelle de Lapalisse, the younger daughter of a noble but downwardly mobile Provençal family, is married off to a wealthy stranger whose devotion to his falcons is matched only by his lust for an heir. Initially attracted to Gerard de Meurtaigne — and to the comforts he lavishes on her — Isabelle eventually realizes that his love is contingent on her abject surrender. “My life would be controlled by my husband until I was old, and weary, and all the curiosity to see the world had been extinguished from me.”
Isabelle has long been fascinated by Eleanor of Aquitaine, once queen of France and now queen of England. But although “The Falcon’s Eyes” is billed as “a novel of Eleanor of Aquitaine,” she doesn’t turn up until Isabelle’s storytelling has passed the 500-page mark. Stanfill’s book is, instead, a celebration of Isabelle’s relationships not just with the queen but with a host of other women: an impetuous aristocrat with influential connections, a beautiful nun whose abbey serves as a refuge for women of all backgrounds, two talented orphan girls, a servant hiding a secret and a “witch” whose potions attract a desperate clientele to her woodland home.
The plot sends Isabelle shuttling between England and France, with some dramatic revelations toward the close. But for long stretches it has a more languid pace, rooted in the details of the characters’ lives — not just meals and clothes but the social routines and rigid etiquette that define their movements, whether they’re maids or royals. Clever intrigues can sometimes subvert the power men hold over them, but is it possible to contrive an escape? At first, the ornamental bronze falcon Isabelle’s husband gives her is an “emblem of failure.” Over time she comes to see it as a symbol of the freedom his living hawks find in the skies — yet she must never forget that the falcon’s eyes are always “alert to kill.”
Alida Becker is a former editor at the Book Review.