City of Secrets: Feels stale

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsbook review Mary Hoffman City of Masks StravaganzaCity of Secrets by Mary Hoffman

It’s Always Somehow Connected to the di Chimici…

City of Secrets is the fourth book in Mary Hoffman’s Stravaganza series, but by this stage they’re wearing a little thin. They’re still very well written, but the freshness and originality of the first couple of books are long gone and what’s left is just formulaic.

The concept itself is great and somewhat reminiscent of C.S. Lewis The Chronicles of Narnia. A select group of young adults chance across talismans that allow them to travel in their sleep to the world of Talia. This alternative version of Renaissance Italy and its cities allows the protagonists (known as Stravaganti) to experience a sense of freedom and to gain the strength and skills they need to face the difficulties in their everyday lives. Each book introduces a new Stravagante (both from this world and from Talia) and is set in a new city (in this case Padavia, an alternative Padua).

But where previous books used this setup to good effect, by City of Secrets, it just feels stale. Lucien was a great protagonist, as was Georgia. Sky was a little bland, but Matt is just plain boring. Where the first two characters had to deal with a terminal illness and a sadistic step-brother, Matt’s only obstacle is dyslexia and his subsequent insecurity about his girlfriend Ayesha. Now, dyslexia is a perfectly viable difficulty for a character (or indeed, a real-life person) to have; the only problem is that it barely makes it into the story. Ayesha is never developed properly as a character, leaving the reader indifferent as whether her relationship with Matt is worth worrying about, and though it’s revealed that Matt’s dyslexia disappears whenever he’s in Talia, this never has any bearing on the plot. He finally comes to terms with his dyslexia at the end of the story, in a near-perfect case of telling-not-showing.

Things are more interesting in Talia, where the Stravaganti of the previous books are forced to deal with the perpetual threat of the di Chimici family, despite the death of their patriarch in City of Flowers. A warrant is out for Luciano’s arrest after Niccolo di Chimici’s suspicious death, and the Duchessa Arianna is constantly risking her safety by visiting her fiancé in secret. The two young lovers have been separated by Luciano’s desire to attend the University of Padavia, but they find an unexpected ally in the form of Enrico Poggi, a former spy of the di Chimici who now has his own score to settle.

When Matt begins to stravagate into Padavia’s Scriptorium he is thrown headfirst into this intrigue, particularly when the current heads of the di Chimici family realize that he too is a Stravagante. Desperate to learn the secrets of the brotherhood, they send out their network of spies at the same time they begin to enforce new anti-magical laws that are designed specifically to target the Stravaganti. The book also includes the persecution of a group of goddess-worshipers, Matt putting the evil eye on a school rival, the kidnapping of two major characters, and the threat of a fire in the city. It’s all written in an episodic manner, leading to rather choppy pacing in which one crisis is resolved only for another to arise directly afterwards. It tends to kill the suspense rather than build up to a satisfying climax.

The di Chimicis make for interesting villains, for though some are certainly worse than others, none of them are wholly evil. Likewise, they have understandable reasons for being suspicious of the Stravaganti given their dealings with each other in the past. Even though the major nemesis of the Stravaganti is no longer among them, it seems that his son Duke Fabrizio will match his father in cunning and ruthlessness, all the more so because he truly believes himself to be in the right.

Finally, the city of Padavia simply isn’t as vivid or interesting as Bellezza, Remora or Giglia. Reading the afterword that Mary Hoffman provides, she reveals that Padavia is the most different from its Italian counterpart, perhaps leading to the lack of detail and color that was so prevalent in the previous books. Places like the university and the anatomical theatre seem to have been included mainly because of famous existing buildings in Padua, and don’t seem quite integrated into the plot.

I still enjoy and recommend the Stravaganza books, but they’re certainly weakening as the series goes on. The formula of introducing a new protagonist and city for each new book means that the dizzying array of characters is difficult to keep track of (needless to say, you’ll be lost if you start the series here instead of with City of Masks) and though the deepening circles of intrigue and espionage are well-plotted and certainly interesting, they don’t quite seem to go anywhere. It’s as if Hoffman has a plan in place, but that this particular installment is just filler before we get to the really good stuff — and I hope it gets here soon.

Stravaganza — (2002-2012) Young adult. Publisher: While sick in bed with cancer, Lucien begins making journeys to a place in a parallel world that resembles Venice, Italy, and he becomes caught up in the political intrigues surrounding the Duchessa who rules the city.

Mary Hoffman Stravaganza: 1. City of Masks 2. City of Stars 3. City of Flowers 4. City of SecretsMary Hoffman Stravaganza: 1. City of Masks 2. City of Stars 3. City of Flowers 4. City of SecretsMary Hoffman Stravaganza: 1. City of Masks 2. City of Stars 3. City of Flowers 4. City of SecretsMary Hoffman Stravaganza: 1. City of Masks 2. City of Stars 3. City of Flowers 4. City of Secrets 5. City of Ships YA young adult fantasy book reviewsMary Hoffman Stravaganza 5. City of Shipsfantasy book reviews science fiction book reviews


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REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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