Thursday, November 19, 2020

Revew: The Quarant by Graham Bullen

The Quarant

Synopsis: January, 1348. They say bad things come in threes...

The day after an earthquake and tsunami have ravaged Venice, Malin Le Cordier, a successful English maritime trader, sails into the city with plans to mature a coup on behalf of Edward III and Genoa. His time? Short. His guilt? Strong. Keeping the coup a secret from those he loves most weighs heavy on his soul. But Venice is a place with secrets and revenge flows through the city like its canals. For his sake and those he is bound to, it is best he learn to navigate it. And quickly.

Unbeknownst to Malin, there is someone powerful in the city who seeks revenge on Edward III on behalf of his family. Well-situated, he operates under covert circumstances, monitoring Malin’s every move - and playing his own long game, merely waiting for the perfect time to strike.

Combining greed and guilt, revenge and undeclared love, this is one trip that Malin may not live to regret.

Venice to the 14th Century. 
From the time of her 5th century foundation on Torcello, Venice has been unique - a small self-governing community of refugees, growing rich on its own audacious merits. In an attempt to preserve its republican identity, reforms were put in place to ensure that the position of the doge (who holds office until death) does not devolve into a hereditary signore. From the 11th century, the government of Venice and its colonies is removed from the sole personal responsibility of the doge and is transferred into the hands of powerful councils. The supreme body is the Great Council of 45 members, with ultimate responsibility for state affairs. On day-to-day matters an executive Minor Council of six members is appointed to guide the doge. Over the years Venice's councils grow and proliferate.

During the 13th century the Great Council expands from 45 members to 60 and then 100. A new Council of Forty is added at some time before 1223, followed by another body of 60 members with special responsibility for financial affairs; this is the Consiglio dei Rogati, known also as the Senate. A Council of Ten is added in 1310, to check on everybody else.  Though richly attired and publicly honoured, the Doge is essentially a powerless figurehead. The system is brilliantly devised to preserve the status quo in two ways - preventing the present doge's family from acquiring power and preventing the wider group of patrician families from losing it.

The doge is not allowed to engage in trade or any financial activity. No member of his family may hold office in government or serve on the councils. Safeguards are in place to prevent an election being rigged (the final group of electors is chosen by lot). Similarly stringent measures are introduced to prevent outsiders getting in. Between 1290 and 1300 the so-called 'closing of the Great Council' limits membership to those families which have provided members in the past. Oligarchy is thus enshrined, in a system which survived until the French Revolution. 

With a greater increase in trade, travel and pilgrimage to the eastern Mediterranean, Venice had the skills to provide the transport and already established trade concessions.  However, there is soon a strong rivalry from two other great maritime communes, Genoa and Pisa.  Both cities subsequently develop extensive trade in the western Mediterranean. Genoa also plays a large part in the crusades, establishing strong trading links in the eastern Mediterranean and coming into direct competition with Venice. Warfare between these two Italian city states is long and intermittent, with Venice by no means always the stronger - until the issue is finally resolved in 1380 at Chioggia when Venice finally defeats Genoa and becomes the undisputed maritime power in eastern waters.

The Black Death.
Plague was reportedly first introduced to Europe via Genoese traders from their port city of Kaffa in the Crimea in 1347. As the disease took hold, Genoese traders fled across the Black Sea to Constantinople, Carried by twelve Genoese galleys, plague arrived by ship in Sicily in October 1347; the disease spread rapidly all over the island. Galleys from Kaffa reached Genoa and Venice in January 1348 with devasting effect, spreading across Europe and into Scandinavia by 1350, and finally Russia in 1351. The disease spread so rapidly that before any physicians or government authorities had time to reflect upon its origins, about a third of the European population had already perished. Within two years (1348-1439), plague had spread throughout the Islamic world, from Arabia across North Africa.

A merchant ship from Dieppe arrives in Venice after a devastating earthquake and tsunami have struck the city.  On board, a man with an agenda known only to a few.  We follow this merchant, Malin Le Cordier, as he and his associates play a deadly political game with La Serenissima - the price of failure being exceedingly high, the chance of betrayal overwhelming. 

The story evolves over a period of forty days - the Quarant - or the period of time a merchant vessel arriving in Venice will spend in quarantine. We accompany the main characters through the highs and lows of their conspiracy, which culminates in the final, thrilling betrayal. 

Bullen's attention to detail in describing both the physical and political landscape is superb, and we experience the sense of urgency as the characters do as we are propelled towards zero hour. 

The characters represent the medieval melting-pot that was Venice.  We have Malin and Symon, Bourchier and Mainard from England (and Scotland); the native Venetians; Florentine spies, and German mercenaries. Yet it is with Malin that the reader will find themselves centred.  The conspirators are akin to the spoked wheel - Malin is the hub from which all others - the radiating rods - are connected.

The roles and motivations of those involved in the conspiracy is gradually revealed, as plans coalesce, and the danger of discovery becomes greater every day.  The reader finds their own pulse racing as events take a turn, this way and that.

Venice is a city run on secrets - and I have provided some links below for further exploration into England's dealings with Venice, espionage and diplomatic relations, and well as some other themes that are running through the narrative.

This is period of history is one in which I am fairly well read and it was highly enjoyable to read a thrilling (fictional) account set in medieval Venice, with quite a decent dose of authenticity.

further reading:
- The Economic History of Venice
- Secret Venice: The Council of Ten and Medieval Espionage
- Calendar of State Papers Relating To English Affairs in the Archives of Venice, Volume 1, 1202-1509
- Hanseatic League
- Venice & Its Minorities
- Battle of Dupplin Moor
- Plague In Venice

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