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.