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Three Fires


Three Fires

This summer, I’ve been reading a lot of very long novels, and I’ve loved them. But there’s also something to be said for a slim book, especially one that packs in as much drama, history and unlikely humor as Denise Mina’s THREE FIRES.

Weighing in at under 150 pages and set in 15th-century Italy, THREE FIRES is a bit of a departure for Mina, a Scottish novelist who is best known for her award-winning crime novels. But it does serve as a companion of sorts to her previous novella for Pegasus Crime, RIZZIO, which dramatized a bloody event in 16th-century Scotland. In similar fashion, Mina takes an unconventional approach to retelling a brutal period in Florentine history, centered on the so-called Bonfire of the Vanities, spearheaded by the friar Girolamo Savonarola.

"[Mina] writes about the political and religious conflicts of the day with well-informed precision, but she does so with a cheekily contemporary flair."

In Mina’s version of events, Savonarola gets started on his lifelong quest to rid Italian civilization not only of the Church’s corruption, but also of Judaism, homosexuality, secular art and outspoken women when, as a young man, his romantic advances are spurned. The title of the chapter in which this episode occurs --- “An Incel Mishearing” --- offers a glimpse at Mina’s approach to her subject. She writes about the political and religious conflicts of the day with well-informed precision, but she does so with a cheekily contemporary flair.

When she describes Savonarola’s prophecies about impending war, visions of a future informed by the civil war he himself witnessed as a young man, Mina writes, “[A]ll of these atrocities occur just as he said they would. Then they look back and wonder how Savonarola could possibly have known. But war is samey. If Savonarola has prophetic insight, then so does the Geneva Convention.”

Mina paints Savonarola as a complex but hardly sympathetic character. While she acknowledges the role he played in calling attention to the Church’s corrupt practices, in ways that would inspire subsequent leaders of the Reformation, she also vividly depicts his cruelty and utter contempt for those whose lifestyle or beliefs did not adhere to his own vision.

Much of the novel’s overall appeal and even some subtle but surprising humor comes via this juxtaposition between the irreverent narrative tone and its incredibly bleak subject matter. But even this contrast starts to break down near the end of the book, where Mina’s implicit points about Savonarola’s authoritarian tendencies become powerfully explicit.

I won’t give away the whole moral here, but suffice it to say that the final line is “This world is the aftermath of Girolamo Savonarola.” Quite the gut punch for a novel of its slim stature, and one that will have readers pondering the frighteningly short distance between Savonarola’s times and our own.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on August 4, 2023

Three Fires
by Denise Mina