Review: Lent by Jo Walton

For the first (almost) half of the book, this is a slightly fantastical biography of the Dominican monk Girolamo Savonarola from 1492 to 1498, including the Bonfire of Vanities. The first thing to address in discussing this book is Savonarola himself. Knowing about the man only from superficial study of the Italian Renaissance, and fictional portrayals of him as an antagonist in The Palace by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro and The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason, I had a very negative image of the man. In making him her main character, Walton makes him both much more sympathetic and more complex: arrogant but not narcissistic, devout but not rigid. I found myself surprised to be rooting for him to create his City of God, and to fall forward at his death.

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SPOILERS

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WARNING: From here on, there will be spoilers. I know no other way of discussing this wonderful, complicated book, and the best part starts in Part Two, about halfway through. However, please read the book before the spoilers, because it’s delightful and what Walton is doing is wonderful and you should experience it properly the first time through.

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SPOILERS

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Through Part One, this book reads like a fictional biography with fantastical elements. Savonarola performs multiple exorcisms throughout the book and we see the demons that he casts out, and he and other characters are able to prophesy about the future. In both cases, talent and training make a difference in the outcomes, but that they exist and are real are unquestioned. As Part Two begins, we discover that Savonarola, a demonstrably good man, at least as depicted by Walton, is actually a demon, one of God’s fallen angels, who now is in Hell. This, needless to say, was quite a shock, but Walton did a good job of explaining any apparent contradictions. At first, it seemed that the rest of the book would be set in Hell, with a quest toward God for Savonarola to undergo.

And then, Part Three begins, and Walton surprises the reader yet again. We discover that Savonarola is caught in a time loop. It’s alluded to in Part Two, but this is the real setting of the book: a time loop that runs from April 3, 1492 to May 23, 1498, over and over again. There is a green stone that Savonarola and his companions believe is the Holy Grail; after the first go-round, as soon as he touches it, he remembers everything. At this point, Savonarola understands that he’s stuck in a loop, he wants to break the loop, and he hopes to wind up in Purgatory or Heaven, but he has no idea how to break it. So, just as Phil Connors does in Groundhog Day, he tries different things on every loop. Unlike Connors, he rejects any option that is clearly evil or even overindulgent, but the second half of the book describes his attempts to break free, from living as a simple man, with a print shop and a wife and children, to becoming Pope. In some lives he travels, in others he stays in Florence, but after every death, he is slammed back into Hell.

He has friends who do their best to help him, but it is spiritually tiring for Girolamo to explain what happened every time to them. There is a mercenary captain, Crookback (probably Richard III of England), who Savonarola meets in the second loop and recognizes as another demon. Crookback also recognizes the stone and demands that Savonarola give it to him. Although Crookback takes it in one life, in most Savonarola resists giving it to him. At the end of the book, realizing that cooperating with each other is so impossible in Hell that it can’t even be discussed, he decides to take a chance and gives the stone to Crookback. That understanding, that we need others to harrow Hell and truly seek Heaven, appears to work. The book ends with Savonarola finally dying falling forward like a good person, not on his back like an evil one.

I decided to reread this book, and write this review, in Lent this year, largely because of the title, but also because of its themes of sin, reconciliation, and redemption, its insistence that we can’t succeed in being good people alone, but only in community. It speaks to me especially now, as I am beginning a journey of confirmation into a new church, and living in the current political environment. Truly, a wonderful book!

Walton, Jo. Lent. New York, New York: Tor Books, 2019 (May 28). 369 pages. 5 stars.

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