The Duke is in a Dangerous Mood…
City of Stars is the second in Mary Hoffman‘s Stravaganza series (of which there are currently five installments), following on from City of Masks. The basic premise of the story is based on people known as the Stravagante: a select group of individuals from our world who can transport in their sleep to the country of Talia, an alternative version of Italy in the sixteenth century. Armed with a unique talisman that enables passage between the worlds, the young Stravagante inevitably find themselves caught up in the political intrigue and power-mongering that goes on in the beautiful cities of Talia, whilst simultaneously trying to deal with the repercussions of their normal lives in the waking world.
The previous book centred on a terminally ill boy called Lucien and his permanent transition into the city of Bellezza in which he is able to live out his life free of cancer, even if it means leaving his family behind him. In this sequel the perspective shifts to a shy, quirky girl called Georgia O’Grady who is trying to cope with her mother’s remarriage and the presence of a bullying stepbrother in the house. She has just saved up enough money to buy a beautiful winged horse ornament at the local antique store. Unbeknownst to her, it is a talisman that allows her to transport to Talia that very night.
Specifically, to the capital of Talia: the city of Remora. Here the city is divided up into twelve wards, each aligning to a sign of the Zodiac. Rivalry between the factions is rife. This unrest provides a breeding ground for the likes of the ambitious di Chimici family to work their manipulations. They have long since desired to add the free city of Bellezza to their ever-growing republic, and are all set to rig the annual Remoran horse race in order to consolidate their reputation of superiority among the people.
But on the same night that Georgia appears in the city, a miracle is born in the stables of the Ram: the first winged foal in over a hundred years, one that bears an eerie similarity to the small model that Georgia carries with her.
What follows is a story of horse-racing, political machinations, family dramas (in both worlds), and a coming-of-age story for our young protagonist. In fact, it’s quite a mish-mash of several disparate story-threads which are only tangentially related to each other, making it not quite up to the standard of City of Masks. To be honest, I found the plot rather slow-going considering the narrative kept switching from one arc to the next, with no real sense of urgency in any of them. Though it’s certainly as vibrant and sensory as the previous book, it would have helped had there been one central storyline instead of half a dozen subplots, including Georgia trying to deal with her stepbrother’s bullying, the upcoming horse race, the Duchessa of Bellezza’s marriage propositions, the theft of the winged horse, and the meeting of the Stravagantes with two young members of the di Chimici family, including one that is desperate for Georgia’s help.
Falco di Chimici is a young boy crippled by a riding accident who is entranced by Lucien’s tale of recuperation in Talia. He believes that could he travel to Georgia’s world he would be able to overcome his injuries with the help of the more advanced healthcare, and hatches a plan with Georgia and Lucien to leave his family and find a place for himself in their world. In what is a nice reversal of the previous book’s scenario, it is someone from Talia who must learn to cope with the 21st century, and like the previous book, Hoffman manages to make it a difficult, poignant transition for everyone involved.
Another interesting development that is built on from City of Masks is that the di Chimici family is now painted in shades of grey rather than the straight-up villains they were in the previous books. Characters like Falco and his brother Gaetano are sympathetic young men who disapprove of their family’s political wrangling, and even the likes of patriarch Duke Niccolo di Chimici is allowed to show a softer side in the affection and grief he feels for his son.
Hoffman always shows a deft touch with her characterization throughout, for even the horrid Russell (whose use of strong derogatory terms throughout the story may raise a few parental eyebrows) gets a glimmer of redemption at the book’s conclusion. Of further interest is Hoffman’s afterword in which she discusses some of the similarities between our world’s version of certain Talian traditions, and how they were reshaped for the novel. She’s clearly put a lot of time and effort into research and consistency, and it may pique the interest of many young readers into learning more about the Renaissance.
Lastly, the whys and wherefores of the Stravagante phenomenon are shrouded in mystery, but there are a few hints scattered throughout City of Stars that suggests there is a rhyme and reason for certain people finding their way into Talia. I certainly hope this is explored further in previous books. In light of the final paragraph, I couldn’t help but feel that much of what happens in City of Stars is setup for the next book, City of Flowers. Though that left me a little cold, I’m still looking forward to what else is in store for this particular series.