The other strand of the novel is narrated by a 15-year-old nerd named Gentile Stornello, who’s a distant relative of the late Desdemona. He introduces himself by telling us, “I’m destined for a lengthy and unthreatened existence that will consist mainly of books,” which is as naked a setup as Benedick telling us he’ll never marry at the beginning of “Much Ado About Nothing.” “A lightweight, a sissy, a ‘lily-livered whey-face,’ ” Gentile is an easy mark for bullies in Venice, particularly Jacopo, a conceited hunk from the Malipiero family. Gentile just wants to study Plutarch and sigh hopelessly over a maid in Jacopo’s household, but in a plot twist that only Bottom could follow, head torturer Malipiero becomes convinced that Gentile is the perfect tool for him to catch Iago and probe his mind.
Most of the time the story moves along briskly and colorfully enough to distract us from the tenuous logic of its plot. The Renaissance streets and canals of Venice thrum with commerce and violence. Its government is a chaotic shouting match that periodically collapses into brawling. Science is slowly illuminating centuries of darkness. Radical ideas about democracy and the nature of God are challenging old social constructions, even ideas about torture (Attention, John Yoo!). Snodin knows Shakespeare’s plays well enough to drop witty allusions as freely as Puck sprinkles love potion around the forest. And the large cast of characters is wonderfully well drawn, right down to the smaller parts such as the cook in Gentile’s house, a big-boned busybody who sounds as if she once worked as Juliet’s nurse. Even that violent rogue known as Iago begins to grow on us as he alternately stabs and caresses his way across the countryside under Malipiero’s spying eyes.