Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Three Fires by Denise Mina -- BOOK REVIEW


Three Fires by Denise Mina (2023, Pegasus Books)

With Three Fires, Denise Mina returns to the novella form she used so masterfully in Rizzio, her earlier book of historical fiction. Three Fires is the story of Girolamo Savonarola, a Dominican frier in 15th Century Florence. Savonarola rose as a puritanical leader of Florence after his preaching against the greed and vice of the ruling Medici family led to their loss of power.

Savonarola’s hellfire preaching inspired a series of fires around Florence lit to publicly burn books, fancy clothes, art, playing cards, musical instruments, and other symbols of immorality. These fires became known as the Bonfire of the Vanities.

While Three Fires is a quick and entertaining read, Mina packs a lot of information and ideas into this short book of 138 pages. She, as the omniscient narrator, uses modern language and modern similes to describe the historical details in a way that makes them immediately understandable. For example, when she describes a civil war between rival aristocratic families in the wealthy city of Ferrara, she says, “It’s the Vietnam War taking place in Monte Carlo.” These historical anomalies could feel like stylistic gimmicks, but in Mina’s hands, they work to convey complex ideas in an efficient and engaging way.

From the award-winning master of crime fiction, Denise Mina re-imagines the "Bonfire of the Vanities,” a series of fires lit throughout Florence at the end of the fifteenth century—inspired by the fanatical Girolamo Savonarola.

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Railing against the vice and avarice of the ruling Medici family, [Savonarola] was instrumental in their removal from power—and for a short time became the puritanical leader of the city. After turning his attention to corruption within the Catholic Church, he was first excommunicated and then executed by a combination of hanging and being burned at the stake.

Just as in Rizzio—her latest novel with Pegasus Crime—Denise Mina brings a modern take to this fascinating historical story, drawing parallels between the febrile atmosphere of medieval Florence and the culture wars of the present day. In dramatizing the life and last days of Savonarola, she explores the downfall of the original architect of cancel culture and, in the process, explores the never-ending tensions between wealth, inequality, and freedom of speech that so dominate our modern world.

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