Set in 14th century Florence “The Kingdom of Light” presents the poet Dante Alighieri as a clerical investigator probing the mysterious appearance of a ship aground in the Arno, its crew all dead, with the sole clue being a strange broken machine.
From this beginning a complex story involving the Guelf and Ghibbeline conflict that dominated much of medieval Italian history, the clash between secular and religious power, and the legacy of the Emperor, Frederick II, unfolds, all set against the rich background of Florence in the middle ages. Leoni appropriates an intriguing set of historical characters to populate his story, Dante being joined by Cecco Angiolieri and Guido Bigarelli, embellished by artistic licence, but adding genuine colour to the story.
Leoni is also not above the occasional historical joke allowing the reader, with the benefit of wider hindsight, the periodic wry smile. Perhaps best of these is the throwaway comment by the philosopher Arrigo, when Dante fells a urinating member of a rival family with a well thrown stone, that Florence should consider erecting a statue of David.
The fusion of magic and reality in medieval Europe is vividly captured, with 'miracles' such as the Virgin of Antioch presented and the genuine puzzlement of intellectuals such as Dante when faced with what they feel should be impossible but cannot rationally explain is fascinating. As the story progresses, and 20th century physics merges with the scientific exploration inspired by Frederick II the background to the murder story grows more engaging and the broadening of the medieval mind becomes the real interest, almost dwarfing the central crime story.
In linking to Frederick II Leoni has access to one of the more intriguing and mysterious aspects of medieval history. As a ruler fascinated by scientific exploration that bordered on heresy, with a turbulent relationship with the Papacy, and through his Sicilian background, a ready openness to both Eastern and Western cultures, he provides a wealth of background material to work with. To those familiar with the history of the period the references to octagonal structures will bring to mind the strangely spectacular Castel Del Monte in Puglia, and it will be no surprise when this building does indeed come to play a role in the story.
The Frederick II story does however present a challenge for Leoni. The life of Stupor Mundi and the tragic tale of his successor, Conradin, told to gripping and moving effect by Steven Runciman in “The Sicilian Vespers”, is a considerable act to follow in fiction and it is to Leoni's real credit that he has managed to take this raw material and shape it into an utterly absorbing novel. It's a more vivid and lavish world than that populated by other medieval crime writers such as Michael Jecks or Bernard Knight, and in its Italian setting cannot fail to be likened to “The Name of the Rose” - to those that like their crime fiction in a distant historical setting, it should be on their must read list.