Using coercion and assassination, Cardinal Trebaldi moves closer to assuming the papal crown. His every attempt to reveal the Cardinal’s treachery thwarted, the Scorpion, joined by the gypsy Mejai and the mysterious Ansea Latal, crosses Europe to find an artifact that could destroy not only Trebaldi’s schemes but the Catholic Church itself.
Swashbuckling. Sword-fighting. Sexy women. Handsome heroes. Betrayal. Evil villains. Exotic settings and a touch of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Really, what’s not to like about The Scorpion: The Devil in the Vatican, a rollicking historical romance.
Writer Stephen Desberg has assembled the type of cast you’d expect for a series like this. However, for the most part, he makes them more than stereotypes.
The Scorpion has the Devil’s own luck--a trait that Desberg actually makes a bit of a plot point. He’s a charming adventurer and rogue; the type of character Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power made a living playing in the 1930s and 40s. Through the skillful use of flashbacks, readers are given hints of what made the Scorpion the kind of man he is--giving him depth and a sympathetic quality.
In the first volume of the series, The Devil’s Mark, Mejai (a gypsy and a mistress of poisons) came across as deadly and efficient. However, in this second volume she’s taken a backwards step as she's reduced to the role of a pretty pest who constantly gets in the Scorpion’s way, insults and argues with him at every turn, and becomes jealous of every woman he looks at.
Desberg captures Mejai's high dudgeon well, and her scenes with the Scorpion provide for some light and humorous moments. However, she’s almost too clichéd to be enjoyable. Her solo scenes are the only ones that I raced through in this volume.
Balancing Mejai is Ansea Latal--supposedly sent to aid the Scorpion but, in reality, playing her own game. A swordswoman par excellence, she easily holds her own against the Scorpion and Cardinal Trebaldi’s warrior monks. She’s the “bad girl” of the series, and Desberg is having a ball writing her. Her scenes with the Scorpion sizzle.
Desberg’s skill with dialog brings these characters to life. Each has a distinctive style of speaking, while their conversations move the story forward without sounding like blocks of exposition.
The plot is actually quite linear, with the characters moving from Point A to Point B and so on. However, it doesn’t feel that linear while reading it due to the judicious use of flashbacks, charged character interaction, and the swift pace of the adventure--all of which work to divert the attention from the plot’s mechanics.
Speaking of the plot, it isn’t so convoluted that it can’t be enjoyed for its own sake. Thrillers--especially thrillers involving religious conspiracies--have been known to get bogged down in their own cleverness. However, The Devil in the Vatican does not.
Desberg has a nice handle on building suspense while keeping readers in the information loop. One of the best sequences in the book is the one in which Mejai races against the Scorpion and Ansea to find a key artifact. Desberg cuts back and forth between the opponents, layering in needed information as he does so.
As for the art, Enrico Marini’s work is beautiful. He moves easily between scenes of quiet domesticity, full-blown action, and gothic horror. There doesn’t seem to be anything he can’t draw--and draw well.
Something that can’t be emphasized enough is how well Marini depicts expressions and the moods of the characters. He has a knack for positioning the characters’ bodies in such a way that you know what they’re thinking just by looking at them. Even with the masked warrior monks, you can get a feel for their emotions by the tilt of their heads and thrust of their bodies.
Marini’s Scorpion is slim, lithe, and athletic. He actually looks like he could perform all the feats he does without breaking a sweat. The women tend to be curvier, but there’s nothing unrealistic about their proportions. There’s also a nice variety of body types in the supporting characters.
The action scenes have a quick rhythm to them; they’re not drawn out. One of my favorites is the one in which the Scorpion throws Mejai out the upper window of a castle into the moat, then follows her. It’s told in nineteen panels, and it takes less than two pages. Marini alternates between larger panels that show a wide angle and tighter ones that move in close on a particular detail. It plays out very well, and it also offers him the opportunity to draw the Scorpion in various dramatic poses.
In lesser hands, those panels would stop the story dead in its tracks as the artist showed off how “cool” his take on the character was, but not here. Marini makes the poses part of the action.
The Scorpion: Devil in the Vatican is a well-written, good-looking book that fans of historical thrillers won’t want to miss.
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