Sarah Dunant published more than half a dozen books before her first historical novel, The Birth of Venus, catapulted her to the top of the New York Times best-seller list in 2003. The book was set in Renaissance Florence in 1492, and her heroine, Alessandra Cecchi, was an intelligent sixteen-year-old with considerable artistic talent, living in such sheltered innocence that, as she says in one of Dunant's many tongue-in-cheek lines, "I had never even seen a public execution."

Fiammetta Bianchini, the heroine of Dunant's new book, In the Company of the Courtesan, is only five years older than Alessandra and shares many of her qualities, but is far from innocent: "By my first confession I already knew things I couldn't tell the priest." Fiammetta is a prostitute. But no common lady of the night is she — Fiammetta is a courtesan. She does not simply service the physical desires of the rich and powerful: her elegant house is part brothel but also part literary and artistic salon and part gourmet restaurant.

Courtesan is told in the voice of Bucino Teodoldi, Fiammetta's pimp. But he too is no ordinary procurer. Bucino is a dwarf whose strikingly ugly visage masks, from those not willing to look more closely, a lively curiosity and intelligence — plus plenty of street smarts. Fiammetta, of course, is stunningly beautiful — Bucino takes half a page just to describe the glory of her hair — but, like him, she thinks fast on her feet and has a great deal of courage, and the two of them are true equals and fiercely loyal to each other. They need all her beauty, his determination, and their combined cunning, courage, and loyalty simply to survive Dunant's first chapter, which begins on May 6, 1527, the day of the Second Sack of Rome.

Dunant fills her books with fascinating historical details, but she also finds relevant resonances to our own time. In Venus she wrote of Savonarola, the historical priest who bears a striking resemblance to today's fundamentalist fanatics, while in Courtesan she explores a society that offered very limited options to women, a situation sadly still true in much of our world.

Courtesan is a meditation on the differences between appearances and inner qualities, but it is never predictable or sentimental. It's not giving away much to say that no knight in shining armor rescues Fiammetta, no beautiful princess falls in love with Bucino. But, as in Venus, Dunant's characters triumph in their experience of love, that "fever from which no one wants to be well."

Sarah Dunant reads from In the Company of the Courtesan at Nicola's Books on Wednesday, March 1.

[Review published March 2006]