Sometimes a Jo Walton book can be summed up with a high-concept line: “What if all of Anthony Trollope’s protagonists were dragons?” (“Tooth and Claw,” 2003); or “What if Athene and Apollo gathered everyone in history who ever wished to live in Plato’s Republic together on an island?” (“The Just City,” 2015).
Just as often, Walton’s books defy summarization. Her 2011 Hugo- and Nebula-award-winning “Among Others” is a fictionalized memoir about a young Welsh girl whose relationship with her paranoid schizophrenic mother, bullying at a posh English boarding school and discovery of the wider world through science fiction fandom are possibly a story about the faerie realm and a family whose struggles are the visible portion of a vast and ancient struggle in the supernatural realm. But maybe the protagonist is just kidding herself?
Whatever her subject, Walton’s fiercest weapon is her delicious ambiguity. Narrative is a great simplifier, tidying up messy life situations into neat cause-and-effect tales where characters resolve their dilemmas with action. In a Walton novel, it’s frequently unclear whether the characters’ situations are real, whether their actions are just or unjust, and yet, each tale resolves in way that is utterly satisfying and lingeringly curious.
Which brings us to “Lent,” Walton’s return to the Renaissance and its relationship with antiquity, a subject also explored in her Just City trilogy. Walton’s protagonist is the 15th century Florentine Dominican monk Girolamo Savonarola: a seer, heretic, reformer and political radical who was excommunicated and martyred by Pope Alexander VI amidst Savonarola’s scourging of Florence of decadent and corrupt religious practices in favor of a Republican austerity that culminated in his legendary bonfire of the vanities in 1495.
“Lent” opens with a beautifully rendered retelling of the life of Savonarola: his visions of demons, his prophecy, his political meddling and his role in vast historical forces tearing apart Italy and France. We meet a cast of characters, each with the ringing verisimilitude of well-researched, real historical personages from the heretical Count Giovanni Pico della Mirandola to the statesman Lorenzo de’ Medici and various clergy, peasants, nuns and friars of feuding orders. Finally, we come to the martyrdom of Savonarola, hanged over a roaring flame, then cut down to fall into the blaze ...
… And then to wake again, in hell, where Savonarola remembers — again, after an unknowable number of previous iterations — that he is a demon, a fallen angel, a duke of hell, cast out of God’s light. In an instant, his whole earthly existence is invalidated: his life as a mystic and prophet, a caster out of demons, a scourger of wickedness, all irrelevant. He has lost the grace he once had and is condemned to repeat his life as Savonarola over and over, tortured in between by endless and instantaneous sojourns in hell, where all grace is denied.
But the next time Savonarola returns to earth, in 1492, it’s all different. This time, Savonarola remembers his true nature, knows he is reliving his life and has to try to change it. Again and again, between hell and earth, Savonarola tries different approaches to redeem his beloved Florence and his church, and to find a way to break the cycle, harrow hell and reattain his grace.
This is Dante’s “Groundhog Day” — a protagonist living the same life over and over again, trying different tactics to avoid the pitfalls. It’s a device that was used to good effect in Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2002 “The Years of Rice and Salt,” a novel that spans millennia, tracing the successive reincarnations of three characters who meet in the bardo between lives and scheme to improve their karma on the next turn of the wheel.
But in Walton’s hands, the idea of a life lived and lived again takes on a new, rich ambiguity. Savonarola’s morality is muddy — he is, after all, a duke of hell — but his cause is just. The different histories he brings into being with each iteration visit joy and sorrow on millions.
And what histories! Walton’s acknowledgments tell the tale: as with “The Just City,” Walton was able to draw on the expertise of her friend, Florentine traveling companion and colleague Ada Palmer, a University of Chicago Renaissance history professor whose own science fiction novels — starting with 2016’s “Too Like the Lightning” — envision a future rendered with a richness that is startling and profound. Palmer’s specialty is forbidden knowledge: witchcraft, homosexuality, heterodoxy and heresy.
Palmer’s pedagogy uses the technique of re-rerunning history: She is legendary for her annual live-action role-playing game in which students re-enact the 1492 papal election over a two-week game of alliances and back-stabbings. Every year, the students’ picks are a mix of recurring finalists and wildcards, which tells a broader story about how much the “great forces of history” predetermine and what role personal agency plays in our historical outcomes.
Walton is a prodigious and talented literary critic, with a gift for showing how books reflect the personal strengths and weaknesses of their authors. Walton’s friendship with Palmer is producing a literary legacy that future critics will celebrate.
Tor Books, 384 pp., $26.99