Power, politics, wealth and family legacy have always been an explosive mix. 15th century Italy is a time famous for an especially brutal and devious set of players, including the infamous Borgia family free with poison for their enemies and living to decadent excess. Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia are figures of legend — Lucrezia a slim girl with a devious, lethal sweetness and Cesare her cunning, loving (perhaps too loving) older brother shadowed everywhere by a swordsman and a poisoner. This is the same period when Da Vinci himself (who did a stint as Cesare’s military engineer) bred poison peaches so that the Medicis could wipe out entire families in one go and the papal see was passed on via heirs in the ruling families. History, though, is always written by the conquerors — what if the Borgias were not what they were reputed to be?
Cantarella, titled after the potent poison the Borgias used against their enemies, creatively embellishes history and brings to life this complicated and treacherous world through the eyes of a young man determined to redirect his own fate. Cesare, illegitimate son of the clergyman destined to be Pope Alexander VI, starts out as a conflicted boy. Reviled as an unnatural reminder of his father’s deal with the devil and hated by his own brother, Cesare retreats into memories of his departed mother and his sister’s unwavering devotion to him. Starved for affection, he reacts to anyone who shows him kindness even when he expects insult. Even as a young man, though, his life is plagued by conspirators, assassins, and threatening spirits that invisibly accompany him everywhere. Taught to be cold-hearted by every new betrayal of trust, Cesare proves to be a keen observer and an intelligent schemer as he begins to wrench his life away from those who would use him as a pawn. This first volume sets the stage for Cesare’s wavering morality and bitter destiny while at the same time showing the human frailty in everyone from the future Pope to Cesare’s would-be assassin, Chiaro. It’s not a flattering portrait, but it is a vivid and dramatic one. The art is fluid and rich with period detail but never distracts from the emotional core of the tale. Creator You Higuri obviously has a great love of the period and roots everything in research while at the same time letting fiction take center stage when the story calls for it. Cantarella is perfect for fans of historical fiction, like Cornelia Funke’s The Thief Lord or Ann Rinaldi’s many novels. This is one series I’m already making room for on my bookshelves, and is a fine example of a genre rare in U.S. comics.