They Want To Take All My Sons!
This, the third book in the Stravaganza series, is almost twice the size of the first installment, City of Masks, and I can’t help but feel that its pacing suffers as a result. Though still rich in detail and description, City of Flowers feels rather sluggish at times, with none of the intrigue or urgency that filled the pages of its predecessors. It picks up considerably toward the end of the novel, with weddings and feuds and floods and murders most foul, but the getting there seems to take forever.
The Stravaganza books are built on the conceit that certain people from our world are able to “stravagate” in their sleep to an alternative-world version of Italy, a country made up of several city-states known collectively as Talia. There are several conditions in place for stravagation to occur: travellers first have to be in possession of a talisman specially chosen to allow transportation, they cannot stay in Talia overnight due to the fact their earthly bodies are in a comatose state whilst they are away, and once they reach Talia they are identifiable by their lack of a shadow. Likewise, Talian citizens are able to stravagate into our world, and throughout the series Mary Hoffman has explored the implications and consequences of such journeys back and forth, adding new characters each time.
This time the new Stravagante is Sky Meadows, a teenager who is being raised by a single mother. He has never met his father, a famous rock-singer known as the Rainbow Warrior (and how a rock singer builds a career on that name is a mystery to me). Older than his years, he struggles with his mother’s mental illness as well as the usual tribulations of teenage life. But all that is about to change when he discovers a small glass bottle on his doorstep and falls asleep with it in his hands.
He awakens in the city of Giglia among a brotherhood of scientist-friars who inform him that he is the latest in a line of Stravaganti, brought to the city for an important though as yet unknown reason. It probably has something to do with the power-hungry Duke Niccolo and the rest of the di Chimici family, the antagonists of the previous books. Here in Giglia they are rivals with the equally wealthy Nucci family, and the upcoming joint-wedding of Niccolo’s sons seems a perfect opportunity for the feud to break out. The Stravaganti band together in order to protect the wedding ceremony, little knowing how deep and bitter the rivalry really is between the two families.
Meanwhile, Sky has his own problems back in the real world, what with his girlfriend getting suspicious over his new friendship with other Stravaganti, his mother’s ongoing illness, and his estranged father’s unexpected arrival back into his life. As well as this there are other little subplots concerning various other characters, including the Duchesse Arianna of Bellezza and her unwelcome proposal from Duke Niccolo, Luciano’s struggle with his secret feelings for Arianna, Nicolas’s desire to return to Talia, and a young orphan boy’s tribulations in the employment of a long-time di Chimici spy: the man known as the Eel.
Juggling all these plot-threads is a challenge that Hoffman handles admirably, but as mentioned, City of Flowers is the longest book yet, and sometimes gets bogged down with its vast array of characters. A family tree and dramatis personae have been included at the back of the book in order to keep track of everyone, and any reader who skips the previous two books will find themselves hopelessly lost.
Sky himself, ostensibly meant to be the protagonist, is practically superfluous to the plot and doesn’t really seem to do anything that could not be handled just as easily by the other Stravaganti (who are given certain powers hitherto unmentioned in the previous books) and not even Hoffman herself seems particularly interested in his backstory. He’s certainly a much blander character than the others, and I wonder if it would have been better to just stick with Luciano, Arianna, Georgia and Nicolas as the protagonists, since they all had much more poignant and interesting stories to tell.
Still, Hoffman’s world-building is still the main draw-card, as she vividly describes the city of Giglia and its surrounding area, filled with buildings, vineyards, churches, rivers and friaries. In her afterwords, in which she explains the inspiration for the di Chimici family was the de Medici, and the template for Giglia was Florence, I wasn’t surprised to learn that she was actually in the city when writing the book. Also noteworthy is the way in which no character is purely good or evil, but rather a particular shade of grey. Even Duke Niccolo has his weaknesses and moments of genuine warmth, fear and humanity. Rather than a typical fantasy scenario of good versus evil, the STRAVAGANZA books concern a human drama.
Plenty of threads are tied up in this book, with the death of a significant character and definitive endings for at least two others. Nevertheless, there are more books that follow this one, and I’ll be interested to see whether Hoffman continues with this massive cast, or whether she cuts down for the sake of simplicity. I loved reading City of Masks and I hope that the series gets some of that first magic back again.