Rice explores anguish of moral uncertainty
The publication of a new novel by Anne Rice still qualifies as a minor event, even though her iconic vampire works are well behind her. Twenty-nine novels later her abundant imagination shows no sign of surcease.
“Of Love and Evil’’ continues Rice’s “Songs of the Seraphim’’ series. That it delves into struggles of faith is made more interesting by her own spiritual journey: from devout Roman Catholic in childhood to longtime atheist; then observant Catholic again; and finally, as she announced in August, to rejection of organized religion largely for political reasons.
Her protagonist, Toby O’Dare, may be a former government assassin, but his spiritual anguish clearly mirrors that of the author who created him. “A growing awareness came to me,’’ he says. “You never know anything for certain, even when your faith is great.’’ Despite undergoing a religious conversion, Toby can’t help asking “what if’’ questions, and admits to himself that “the longing to know was pain, because it was a longing for all tension and misery to end. And they do not really ever end.’’
Toby, 28, is haunted by his past and wants to make things right. Ten years ago, he abandoned Liona, the woman he loved, while she was pregnant with their son, and spent the decade working as a contract killer. Secretly, though, he felt suicidal after every “successful’’ hit. Now reunited with Liona and Little Toby (as his son is known), Toby is desperate for a second chance at love.
As in “Angel Time,’’ the previous installation in this series, he embarks on a path toward atonement. He’s visited by the angel Malchiah, who transports him on a mission from 21st-century California to 15th-century Rome. There, amid Michelangelo fulfilling commissions and Leo X on the papal throne, Toby seeks redemption by acting as an “angel’’ of sorts who assists others in distress.
Posing as a Jewish lutenist, Toby comes to the rescue of a young Jewish physician and translator, Vitale de Leone, who is accused of trying to poison Niccolo, the son of his patron, Signore Antonio. Vitale claims that Niccolo is his dearest friend, and that he would never kill him. It’s obvious to Toby that the likelier suspect is Niccolo’s brother, Lodovico. (Niccolo is engaged to marry the woman Lodovico was in love with.) Additionally, Vitale is accused of attracting an evil, raging spirit into his house, which is owned by Signore Antonio and is the former residence of a Hebrew scholar.
Ghosts and angels aside, “Of Love and Evil’’ transcends the metaphysical thriller label through its grounding in historical fact. The well researched story, which convincingly portrays Jewish life in Renaissance Italy, explores rampant anti-Semitism and persecution. (The horrific mutilation of a Jewish boy in 1493 informs an incident in the novel.)
Rice also offers vivid descriptions of 15th-century architecture, as Toby marvels at palazzos with “vast and polished rooms . . . beautifully frescoed walls, floors of rich marble tile, and a wealth of dark tapestries.’’ His sense of wonder proves infectious for the reader as well.
Perhaps because the novel’s themes of faith, doubt, and redemption are so personal for the author, there’s an added layer of resonance. Throughout her career, Rice has wrestled with such issues in one way or another, yet this work is imbued with a deeper reckoning. The author not only explores a battle against evil, but asks what it means to be evil and who gets to define it.
Above all, “Of Love and Evil’’ is simply good entertainment, and it ends with a cliffhanger. Who knows when Toby O’Dare will resume his efforts at salvation, but the novel’s ominous conclusion suggests that he will return before too long.
Carmela Ciuraru is the editor of several anthologies. Her book, “Nom De Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms,’’ will be published in June. She can be reached at email@example.com.