by Lara Byrne
The Road to Canossa is the sequel to Lotharingia* and Byrne takes the reader back into early medieval Europe with a new Pope on the throne whose hatred for King Heinrich is all-consuming.
Pope Gregorius (Ildebrando di Soana) looks to stop at nothing to defeat Heinrich and it’s up to Matilde to broker peace. But how can she negotiate with Heinrich, the man she loved so deeply, who hurt her so much, and Ildebrando whom she cannot trust?
The novel opens with Ildebrando being chosen as the new Pope. Ildebrando is essentially the villain of The Road to Canossa but Byrne makes the reader privy to his vulnerabilities, jealousies, and deep-seated insecurities which are often the true reasons he lashes out so viciously. Consequently, he does occasionally ignite reader sympathy despite appearing as a ruthless despot to those around him.
All the players in The Road to Canossa are well-rounded, wonderfully realized, full of depth and authenticity. Those that were prevalent in Lotharingia have matured credibly and the reader is immediately placed back into their manipulation and scheming.
This outing is more character-driven than the first book, frailties of personality and susceptibilities are central to the plot machinations, especially as further details of Charlemagne’s prophecy are revealed which have profound emotional ramifications for the main characters, especially Matilde.
Byrne pitches her perfectly. Wounded, isolated, and introspective but always fully recognizant of her role, inheritance, and birthright. Her quiet strength and innate integrity carry her through even when issues seem insurmountable and her courage falters.
She is often a little too stubborn for her own good in personal matters, but her tenacity in the political arena proves invaluable as Ildebrando and his cohorts throw all manner of double-dealing and trickery at her.
However, as with Lotharingia, the nucleus of the book is the deeply complex and intense relationship between Matilde and Heinrich. For nearly two-thirds of The Road to Canossa, they do not physically meet but, through political and personal entanglements, their compelling dynamic shuttles back and forth across the territories.
Nonetheless, the bond between them is simply too strong and transcendental to deny although Byrne expertly builds the tension before they finally encounter each other and indeed, afterward.
Heinrich has a harder edge to him than before, although still periodically petulant and capricious, governed by emotion. Matilde balances his impulsiveness but Byrne is careful not to let them, or the reader, get too comfortable, despite their overwhelming connection and esoteric destiny.
Not only are Matilde and Heinrich slaves to internal conflicts but they are also influenced by external struggles. And what struggles they are. Byrne is masterful as she explores the conspiracies, intrigues, and duplicitous power play. The maneuvering is beautifully intricate but accessible to the reader and never loses continuity or momentum. It provides for a marvelously engrossing read.
Byrne lives and breathes within this world but despite her faultless historical accuracy, she remains an excellent storyteller, there is nothing dry or academic about this novel.
Notwithstanding, the vibrancy of her imagination does not detract from her encyclopedic knowledge and meticulous research, which is fascinating and effortlessly transports and immerses the reader into the early eleventh century.
The Road to Canossa is another rich tapestry of a novel from Byrne and a worthy successor to Lotharingia. Sumptuous, involving, and an absolute page-turner. Highly recommended.
*Click here for my review of Lotharingia.