Sarah Dunant's second novel of historical fiction, after 2003's 'The Birth of Venus', is a richly coloured romp through Renaissance Italy. Opening in 1527 Rome, just prior to the sacking of that decadent city by the imperial Protestant troops of Charles V, the courtesan in question is the celebrated Fiammetta Bianchini. In her company is the narrator of this tale, crafty dwarf Bucino Teodoldo, who manages to make up in brains and loyalty what he lacks in stature.

Barely surviving the attack on Rome with their lives (and a few hastily-swallowed jewels), the duo make their way to Venice. Half-starved and with her beauty - and their only means of livelihood - almost destroyed, Fiammetta is near despair but, with the help of the steadfast Bucino and a blind healer called La Draga, she soon reclaims, and even surpasses, her previous glory.

Sixteenth century Venice is laid bare, in all her privilege and poverty, as Dunant looks beyond the simple historical and religious facts to see how individuals were affected. The era is further evoked by the presence of real people scattered alongside the fictional creations - author, playwright, poet and satirist Pietro Aretino and the painter Tiziano Vecellio, better known as Titan, both have sizable parts to play in the lives of Fiammetta and Bucino.

An atmospheric page-turner, 'In the Company of the Courtesan' is a worthy successor to 'The Birth of Venus'

Caroline Hennessy