Luca Bastardo lives on the streets of Florence, Italy, in the early 1300’s. He has no knowledge of who his parents were, or how he became lost from them. All he knows is that he is different from the other homeless boys he befriends.
His hair is blond (and a little red) and everyone else has brown hair. He is clearly smarter than the rest of the children, as well as many of the adults. Luca is strikingly beautiful, and being so brings him much grief.
For reasons unknown to him, Luca is very nearly immortal (hence, the title of the book, Immortal). But how? And why? His long life causes him to experience much more suffering than a “normal” man would have to endure. Sometimes, Luca believes God is laughing at him.
It is clear that Luca is a survivor. As a child, he becomes enslaved in a brothel run by an evil man named Silvano. This brothel is filled children who are forced into being sex workers. Silvano takes pleasure in terrifying, beating, and mutilating the children who work for him. Luca spends many years in this hell, and I found it really difficult to read about.
This part of the book is not written in a pornographic way, but, it is abundantly clear what is going on anyway. Luca is suffering. Silvano won’t kill Luca, however. Silvano has noticed that Luca doesn’t seem to be aging, and is convinced he is a sorcerer.
He tells Luca that he has a paper that talks about who Luca’s parents were, and that he is waiting for Luca to become “full grown”, so he can turn him over to the church, and gain prestige. Silvano needs Luca. So, when he wants to punish Luca, he chooses another child to beat and torture, and makes Luca watch.
Eventually, Luca escapes, creating a bitter enemy in not just Silvano, but all his future generations. Luca is free, but never safe. Readers who are knowledgeable about Italian art from the 1300’s to the 1400’s will find the rest of the book fascinating.
The book becomes almost a work of historical fiction, as Slatton weaves in political events, famous artists who befriend Luca, and a vivid description of the artwork, the buildings, and the beauty of Italy itself. The good parts of Luca’s long life seem all the more beautiful in comparison to the hell of Luca’s past. Like all of us, Luca is who he is because of what he has survived. It colors him in the choices he makes, and how he sees the world.
Luca wants, more than anything, to find out who his parents were. Are they still alive? What happened that day he was lost? He also wants, very badly, to someday have a wife and child, and to be worthy of the love of a woman. Simple goals that keep getting diverted as Luca gets involved in the lives of his close friends.
He meets an alchemist named Geber, and a mysterious man called “the wanderer”, both of whom seem to have the answers Luca is searching for, but who will only answer his inquiries with more questions. They are his teachers, and are fascinating characters!
Slatton does a wonderful job of making the characters in her book multidimensional, and incredibly real. I found myself becoming happy when good things happened to the people in her story, and incredibly distressed as I read about things going badly. Luca has a vision of the future (of sorts) under the tutelage of Geber and “the wanderer”, where he has to make an important choice that will affect the course of the rest of Luca’s long life.
I was delighted to find Leonardo Da Vinci appearing in this story, as well as several members of the Medici family. They are not just added for flavor, either! They direct much of the action in the later part of the book. Slatton brings her readers to the heart of the action throughout the story. You learn, firsthand, what it was like to live through the Black Plague, to be in a town sacked by an invading army, to dance and frolic at carnevale. Slatton describes the food the characters eat so well that I found myself getting hungry.
By the end, Luca does get what he has been longing for, but, only after much suffering, and for a short time. We know from the first pages of the book that Luca is doomed, because we learn right away that his story is written in a journal that was given to the church after his death. Despite that foreshadowing, it was still unsettling to see exactly how it all ended.
If you can’t get enough of stories involving Italy, the artwork that adorns it, and the artists who created it, you will love this book. Those of you that are especially sensitive to stories where children are abused are going to have a difficult time with the first part of this book (as I did).
However, overall, this is a wonderful read. You have to take the good with the bad in this story, which is something that Luca Bastardo learns is true about life, and God Himself.
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