Florence in the year 1518 is riven by scientific and sociological change caused b the wonderful devices of the Great Engineer, Leonardo da Vinci. Now he is old and lives as a recluse working behind the walls of his castle. The Raphaelites, artists and anti-technologists led by Raphael of Urbino, call for his excommunication.
Pasquale di Cione fiesole, an apprentice painter witnesses an assassination attempt on Raphael at a Cathedral service. The weapon falls into his hands, and he is soon on the run from engineers and artists, desperate to prove his innocence.
Scotsman McAuley (Philip A. Dick Award-winning Four Hundred Billion Stars; Red Dust) has written an ambitious, often brilliant novel of alternate history. Renaissance Florence provides the richly portrayed historical backdrop. But, in McAuley's evocation, the city's skies are tainted by industrial waste from foundries and manufactories; its monumental buildings are designed and fiercely watched over by the Great Engineer, whose identity readers will easily deduce as that of Leonardo da Vinci. In this alternate Florence, a division has arisen between artisans and artists, with the former--those who work with their hands--holding more prestige than the creative artists. The protagonist is Pasquale, an apprentice painter determined to create a true image of an angel. He meets Niccolo Machiavegli, who lost his foreign policy position under the Republic rule and is now a journalist and political commentator on a broadsheet offering gossip and scandal. As the two become involved in investigating a string of murders, including the death of Raphael (Florence's most honored artist since Michelangelo fell from grace when he failed to complete the Sistine Chapel ceiling), Pasquale and Machiavegli uncover conspiracy after conspiracy, including the ``demonology'' of the followers of prophet-orator Savonarola and the obligatory ``Spanish conspiracy.'' McAuley adroitly ties all these events together in a complex plot. His most noteworthy accomplishment is that Machiavegli sounds Machiavellian even in ordinary conversation. Indeed, the only moments that give a reader pause are those that seem more anachronistic than they probably truly are--Pasquale turns out erotic paintings called ``stiffeners''; a corpsemaster wishes for ``sloppy seconds.'' McAuley's spectacularly realized chiaroscuro world is a highly entertaining tour de force.