We all know the old adage that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. But when lockdown ended in Rome and I could walk around and visit bookshops (!!) when they were one of the first non-essential businesses to be allowed to open, I couldn’t resist the stunning cover of I leoni di Sicilia.

I’m already a fan of historical fiction, so a family saga set in Sicily in the tumultuous years stretching between the 1790s to 1860s was an easy sell for me.

This is the story of Paolo and Ignazio Florio, who move to Palermo, Sicily from their native small town of Calabria. They come with Paolo’s wife Giuseppina and their infant son, Vincenzo.

Paolo and Ignazio are ambitious and willing to do whatever it takes to become successful shopkeepers in Palermo. They settle among fellow Calabrians who have also moved to Palermo to seek their fortunes.

Through years of working all hours and meeting the needs of their clients they rapidly rise to prominence as shopkeepers, and later by investing in real estate, shipping and tuna industries.

But they learn they will always be viewed as outsiders, and will never truly be accepted into the best families of nineteenth century Palermo, no matter how much wealth and property they accrue.

The author is skilled at painting a time and place. We see Palermo change hands of various powers, including Napoleon’s France, the Bourbons and the Kingdom of Naples and the two Sicilies, and finally, Garibaldi’s Red shirts. The Florios – perhaps not being deeply tethered to local society themselves – are quick to shift loyalties in order to obtain favorable trade relations.

The weaker aspect of this novel, which is apparently to be developed into a multi-novel saga, is character development. Too often, it felt we missed opportunities to better understand character motivations by delving more deeply into the minds the characters psyches. Instead, I felt I was reading narration of events when I would have preferred to be firmly embedded in the mind of the characters.

Although the character of Vincenzo’s wife is fleshed out relatively well, Vincenzo and his mother Giuseppina, who are key protagonists in this saga, remained largely a mystery to me. I hope that future novels will include more consistent character development.

With more well developed characters, I would look forward to reading more about the next generation of Florios as they continue to expand their business interests in 19th century Sicily under a unified Italy.