City of Masks is an “other world” novel, one where characters from our world can travel back and forth to another, in this case an alternate history 16th century Italy known as Talia. These travelers (and it works both ways) are known as “stravaganti,” thus the series title. While this book takes places in this world’s version of Venice (Bellezza), others in the series will range elsewhere (City of Stars, for example, is set in an alternate Sienna).
City of Masks is young adult fiction and has the thinness that one expects from books aimed at younger readers. One pleasant exception to this is the detail of the city of Belezza itself and later Venice itself as the main character first reads up on the parallel city then visits it with his parents. The physical descriptions of Belezza, its festivals, and some of its rituals and religion are all vividly drawn, allowing the reader to truly feel he/she is entering a solid place along with Lucien, the young teen main character.
Unfortunately, the underlying magic which allows for Lucien’s travel isn’t handled as strongly. He enters Belezza via a “talisman,” an object from Belezza brought by a Talian stravaganza to our world for this purpose. Beside the difference of four centuries between Talia and our world, the movement of time itself isn’t always dependable; one may spend a day in the real world while a week passes in Talia. All of is covered a bit sketchily, as are other examples of magic (viewing mirrors, teleportation, etc.). The same scarcity of detail is evident in the discussions of the “brotherhood” of stravaganti, who are aware of one another and meet now and then. Young adult doesn’t necessarily mean things have to be stripped down or simplified, witness the very detailed and precise explanations of magic in Leguin’s Earthsea series or HARRY POTTER or BARTIMEUS. This book suffers in comparison to those in its fullness and depth.
Characterization is solid if a bit thin. Lucien, one of two main characters, has cancer in our world and so his journeys to Talia, where he is hale and healthy, are not simply adventures to be enjoyed but something much more important to him personally. On his first visit, he meets 15-year-old Arianna, a vibrant, headstrong girl who has little care for stultifying rules and regulations, such as ones saying only boys can be “mandoliers” (gondoliers for the Duchessa) or that young unmarried women have to wear masks. He also meets the Duchessa and Rodolfo, the Stravaganza who brought Lucien’s talisman to earth and the Duchessa’s lover and advisor.
Lucien has entered Belezza at a time of great danger for the Duchessa, who is trying to keep her city out of the clutches of Talia’s most powerful family, the di Chimici, who have managed to force all other cities under their rule. There is a lot of political maneuvering (including use of violence) between the Duchessa and the di Chimici ambassador, and Lucien finds himself repeatedly caught up in the middle, sometimes willingly and sometimes accidentally. On top of the politics, the di Chimici are aware of the Stravaganti (though not of specific ones) and wish to turn this ability to travel between worlds to their own nefarious ends. Like the magic, this facet of the book, the di chimici’s knowledge and their purposes, suffers from being overly vague. The political infighting, however, is fully and clearly explained.
So Lucien and Arianna find themselves taking part in the fight to keep both Belezza and the Stravaganti independent. Meanwhile they have their own personal issues to work out, both individual ones as well as the question of their own attraction to one another. Finally, there is Luciens’ plight back home with regard to his illness.
The female characters truly stand out as the more vivid and interesting, particularly Arianna and the Duchessa, though a few others as well stand out despite their small roles. Lucien’s character is a bit weak and somewhat predictable, and Rodolfo as well isn’t as strong a presence as it seems he’s meant to be. The political intrigue is exciting and interesting, the background battle over the magic less so, mostly due to the lack of detail. Older readers will probably see much of the plot coming, but in a sign of some strong writing, that won’t really detract much from some of the book’s later emotional impact.
Overall, City of Masks is solid with its weaker points well-balanced by the strength of the rich description of Belezza. It isn’t a great compelling start, but it is interesting enough and shows enough flashes to keep you reading along.
The second book, City of the Stars, shifts locale and main character somewhat (though Lucien, Arianna, etc. all play large roles in it, just not as the major characters) but continues at about the same level. The plot is stronger and more compelling, the characters a bit less so, and the descriptions of parallel Sienna equally as rich as those of Belezza.
If the third book, City of Flowers, can employ that same vividness with regard to the characters and story of the third book, it will be a winner. As is, City of Masks is somewhat recommended (more strongly for those seeking strong female characters), but it isn’t as strong a young adult fantasy as some others out there such as Leguin’s Earthsea, McCaffery’s Dragonsinger, The Amulet of Samarkand and Gregor the Overlander.
I wasn’t sure what to expect with the first book in Mary Hoffman’s Stravaganza series, but what I got was a suspenseful, exciting, imaginative and satisfying tale populated by vivid characters and set in a beautifully realized alternative-world. If you enjoy the world-traversing adventures found in THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA, then City of Masks and its sequels will be right up your alley.
Lucien is recovering from intensive chemotherapy when he’s given a marbled notebook by his father to help him communicate if his throat is too sore to speak. With the book clasped in his hands, Lucien dreams of a beautiful city of columns and fountains, cathedrals and basilicas, canals and courtyards — and even stranger, a young girl dressed as a boy who insists that he’s in grave danger. Her name is Arianna, and she’s disguised as a boy because she wants achieve her ambition of being chosen as a mandolier (what we would call a gondolier) to the Duchessa, sole ruler of the city of Belleza.
Arianna tells Lucien that on this particular day, only citizens of Belleza are allowed in the city, and both of them are risking their lives by being there. Still convinced that the whole thing is a dream, Lucien tags along with Arianna to where that year’s candidates are selected by the perpetually-masked Duchessa. In this world, Lucien’s dark curly hair and handsome face have been restored to him, and both successfully catch the Duchessa’s fancy.
From there the story flows back and forth between the two worlds. By day Lucien succumbs to the aftereffects of his cancer treatment, but by night he is free and healthy in the wonderful country of Talia, the otherworldly version of sixteenth century Renaissance Italy (with Belleza standing in for Venice). He learns that he is a Stravagante, someone who has the ability to transport (or “stravagate”) himself between worlds with the help of a talisman; in this case, the marbled notebook. Under the tutelage of the Duchessa’s scientist and former lover Rodolfo, Lucien begins to explore his powers, and thanks to the companionship of Arianna, he learns more about the beautiful city of Belleza and the intrigue that seethes below its surface.
Things just get more interesting as Lucien finds himself drawn into the world of political espionage, assassination attempts and rival factions working against the Duchessa. With the added dangers of his stravagating abilities, Lucien struggles to help his new friends whilst retaining a relatively “normal” life the waking world.
Mary Hoffman has written a fantastic story that ticks all the boxes of what makes a satisfying read: an interesting premise, a range of likable characters, a rollicking story, and a world that you wish you could explore for yourself. Hoffman’s gift is her wonderfully rich and descriptive writing. You don’t just read about Belleza, you visit it along with Lucien, and are just as impressed by its beauty as he is.
Likewise, it’s hard not to fall in love with her characters; not just the spunky Lucien and Arianna, but the wise and gracious Rudolfo, Arianna’s long-suffering parents, the conniving Rinaldo di Chimici, and of course, the grand, charismatic, imposing, ruthless Duchessa. There’s even room for the real-life historical figure of Doctor William Dethridge, a man who disappeared mysterious in 1556 after facing charges of witchcraft and who is here made out to be the first Stravagante to appear in Talia.
Equally innovative are the rules and restrictions that encompass “stravagating.” Whilst visiting Belleza in his sleep, Lucien’s body remains comatose, meaning that it’s only safe for him to stravagate at night when no one will notice. Whilst in Belleza, he has no shadow and so must be careful not to attract undue attention to its absence. Finally, the Stravaganti must remain a secret, for there are those that would exploit their powers to import technology and knowledge from other worlds that is far beyond their ability to control or understand. Naturally, each one of these problems is faced by Lucien during the course of the book.
To top it all off is an unexpected and bittersweet ending that will stay with you long after you’ve closed the book. Much like Philip Reeve and Meredith Anne Pierce, Mary Hoffman is a fantasy writer for young adults who is woefully unrecognized.