LADY WITH AN ALIEN
by Mike Resnick
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
As Mike Resnick points out in the preface to Lady with an Alien, Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was the epitome of the Renaissance Man. This novel is an entry in a series of historical novels which strive to introduce art to young adults. In this, Resnick does a fantastic job, for he manages to present an actual story about Leonardo da Vinci with details about da Vinci's life and painting techniques in a manner which does not come across as merely a lecture, but as part of the story.
The story opens with Leonardo da Vinci discovering a strange blue animal in his workshop. Shortly thereafter an equally strange teenager, Mario Ravelli, appears to claim the animal which da Vinci has already adopted as a pet. Although Mario tries to act as if he belongs, there is just too much about him that doesn't fit and it isn't long before da Vinci learns his secret, the Mario is from the twenty-fifth century (that fact that his pet has blue fur is something of a giveaway).
Da Vinci, ever interested in the sciences, history, and everything else, tries to wheedle information from Mario, who refused to tell da Vinci anything that would change the course of history as Mario knows it. However, the two quickly come to an understanding that allows da Vinci to learn some things, Mario to see the Renaissance up close, and Resnick to impart information about da Vinci's life, times, and techniques to the reader.
Even as the two are becoming friends and sharing what knowledge they can, da Vinci is hard at work on a portrait of Cecilia Gallerani and her despised cat, Prospero. Although Mario knows the painting and what da Vinci will eventually do to it, he can only coach da Vinci and allow the artist to come up with his own answers to his questions.
Although Lady with an Alien could easily have been a slow moving art history lesson, Resnick makes the characters and setting come to life. Rather than dump all the technical information about da Vinci's painting styles into one morass of explanation, he allows it to be brought out in a more organic fashion, as a master would teach his apprentice and by allowing Mario to figure things out on his own. Similarly, da Vinci is shown capable of extrapolating from the hints Mario gives him, as befits a man who may have been among the most intelligent and capable men to ever live.
While it is clear that Resnick admires da Vinci, he does not attempt to whitewash his life. Da Vinci is shown with foibles as well as strengths and he never appears to be more than a human. Furthermore, Resnick is able to show da Vinci as a man of his times without projecting late twentieth and early twenty-first century mores on him allowing him instead to be a Renaissance Man in all meanings of the term.
Even though the publisher is marketing Lady with an Alien to a young adult audience, the book is enjoyable and complex enough for adults to read. Furthermore, Resnick's work is able to teach all of his readers, whether young or old, about the Renaissance and da Vinci in particular. Apparently, Resnick has plans to write further novels about the great artists and if they are anything like Lady with an Alien, he will have done a great service to both the world of art and literature.
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