City of Masks (Stravaganza, book 1), by Mary Hoffman

Mary Hoffman is English; she was born in a railroad town, but moved to London when she was quite small. She has a degree in English Literature from Cambridge and a diploma in linguistics from the University College of London. Just after that, in 1970, she started writing children’s books; to date she has published around eighty of them, mostly shorter works. The Stravaganza series contains her longest works to date. She is married; her husband is half-Indian, and of their three daughters, one (Rhiannon Lassiter) is a published author. In her spare time, she takes Italian classes, presumably at least somewhat as research for this series, at Oxford.

Lucien Mulholland is a fifteen-year-old twenty-first-century English boy, who is unfortunately dying from a brain tumor. Arianna is a fifteen-year-old sixteenth-century Talian girl living in an alternate universe where Remus founded Italy instead of Romulus. The connection? A journal, that allows Lucien to travel in his sleep from England, where he is doing poorly, to Talia, specifically Bellezza (an alternate Venice), where he is hale and healthy. Arianna wants nothing so much as to be a mandolier (gondolier), despite her gender, so she sneaks into town for the trials. There, she meets Lucien, recently traveled and confused, and they get caught up in the politics and plotting of the time. The Di Chimici (Medici) family wants nothing so much as to kill Bellezza’s Duchessa — can two teenagers help stop that from happening?

Ms. Hoffman’s alternate Italy is a very detailed and fascinating place. Those who are more intimately familiar with alternate-universe theory will have to suppress their disbelief that all the same locations and personages would have evolved, in remarkably similar fashion, with such an early (pre-Roman empire, obviously) split. Those who are more familiar with more science-fictiony time- and space-travel will also have to suspend that knowledge; yes, Lucien is simultaneously traveling back some six hundred years and over a distance of some miles. However, if one can set these concerns aside and go with the flow of the story, it’s captivating.

Lucien is perhaps not the most fascinating character; he really seems to have no traits that distinguish him from many other fictional English schoolboys, but his role as a sort of Everyman cast into a strange situation fits. The cast, primarily Talians, surrounding him is wonderful. Arianna is strong-willed, independent, and intelligent; Rodolfo is enigmatic but warm; the Duchessa herself is rich and complex. Another favorite character of mine is Dr. William Dethridge; he speaks in a form of Shakespearean English, and it’s quite amusing to have to sound things out through his eccentric (and historically accurate, in that way where English spelling wasn’t standardized until much later) spelling. Lucien’s parents are quite sympathetic, too; they perhaps have the hardest lot in the story, with a dying son.

The tale didn’t go exactly where I expected. The characters make some hard choices, and there are on-screen deaths (more than one) of sympathetic characters. It’s actually, despite the somewhat hokey setup, a great story about leadership, choices, politics, and life. There are a few twists and turns that I didn’t even see coming. In short, Ms. Hoffman has set up an interesting world, with interesting characters and a surprisingly refreshing plot. Her research into the standard-universe Italy shows, although not irksomely so, and the details about mask-making, the lagoon, and lace were a welcome addition. I am very much looking forward to reading more books in this series. 4/5 stars.

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