STRAVAGANZA: CITY OF MASKS
BY MARY HOFFMAN
Mary Hoffman is a British author and critic (born in 1945) who has written over 90 books for all age-groups. She is a true ‘Italy’ enthusiast and this shows deeply in her Stravaganza series.
‘City of Masks’ (set in an alternate version of Venice) is the first book in the Stravaganza series that started out with the intention of being a trilogy. It is followed by ‘City of Stars’ (set in an alternate version of Siena), ‘City of Flowers’ (set in an alternate version of Florence) , ‘City of Secrets’ (set in an alternate version of Padua) and Mary Hoffman has just confirmed that the fifth book ‘City of Ships’ (set in an alternate version of Ravenna) will be available in 2010.
Fantasy has always been a very popular genre through the ages, but it is now in the modern 21st century with so many problems and evils, that people seem to be gravitating towards it more than ever. Maybe for a simple reassurance that good does triumph over evil, or that there is something called as karma or for the simple reason of escaping a troubled and confused world into one where everything works out in the end, however bad things may seem at first.
Venice – that beautiful, romantic city in northern Italy has been called by many names – The City of Water, The City of Bridges and The City of Light among others. Mary Hoffman has played on these very titles and named the first of her books, set in an ‘alternate’ version of Venice, as ‘City of Masks’.
The origin of the name ‘Venice’ is thought to have a relation to the meaning of the Latin word ‘venetus’ that is ‘sea-blue’. This serves well with the connection of the city to water.
Hoffman has created a counterpart of Renaissance Italy called ‘Talia’ and Belleza is her version of Venice – dark and mysterious, full of magic and intrigue, ruled by the great, beautiful Duchessa Silvia.
‘Stravagation’ is the technique of being able to travel between two different worlds (16th century Talia and our modern world in this instance) albeit with a special talisman brought from the world to which the Stravagante intends on travelling to. These Stravaganti are only distinguishable from the Talian public by their absence of a shadow, and through the ages there have been many such ‘travellers’ leading to the formation of a ‘brotherhood’ of sorts.
With its affinity to silver rather than gold, its multi-faceted religion/belief system which is a mix of Old Christianity and pagan/wiccan traditions, and the friendly but superstitious lagooners who adore their city and their Duchessa more than their own lives, Belleza is the perfect setting for a fantasy. And the believable and rounded characters who we can readily identify with, just add yet another dimension to this book which many have written off as a book written for young adults and children.
Lucien Mulholland is a teen living in the Islington area in London who has cancer and is undergoing chemotherapy. When he gets too exhausted to talk, his father buys him a notebook with a swirly purple and red marbled cover.
After hearing about Venice from his father, Lucien falls asleep with this notebook in his hand and thoughts of Venezia in his mind, and is transported to Belleza, in the magical world of Talia. In this parallel world, there is no trace of the brain tumour that has tormented him. Lucien meets the beautiful and adventurious Arianna Gasparini, who has dreams of being the first female mandolier but in reality has a much bigger role to play in the fortunes of Belleza than she or the reader can ever imagine, the ruthless, powerful but essentially non-evil Duchessa Silvia, the mysterious, powerful and scary but good-hearted Senator Rodolfo Rossi, a fellow Stravagante who knows and see more about Belleza and other places in Talia than anyone suspects, the evil Rinaldo Di Chimici etc. There are also slightly more ‘minor’ characters like Arianna’s parents, fishermen brothers and grandparents, her widow aunt Leonara, the first Stravagante from our world to Talia, Professor William Dethridge, the evil Enrico, the pretty but money-minded Guiliana etc.
Lucien – Luciano in Belleza – is immediately sucked into a whirlpool of danger and politics with the sinister Di Chimici family who are out to gain power in Belleza and to capture Stravaganti in order to gain access to the portal between Talia and our modern world.
The narrative plunges straight into the story right from the prologue, with hardly any background given about any of the characters or their respective settings and we are introduced to most of the main players in the first 2 chapters itself. And because we are systematically kept in the dark about the characters at first, there is a considerable increase in the curiosity and mystery quotient, and this is maintained throughout the book, with only tiny bits and pieces of the puzzle revealed at each stage in the narrative. Due to this it does take a while to get completely ‘absorbed’ in the story and in the lives and fortunes of the characters, but there is enough bait in the fast and pacy narrative to keep you wanting to read more.
The narrative also has more than its share of ‘rich’, colourful and detailed description which just adds to the final effect – all the descriptions about the various dresses, the intricate masks, the complicated but beautiful architecture, all blend together well in the final mosaic that is Belleza and Talia. There is an obvious focus on masks and they form an interesting and important part of the narrative.
The book has quite a few surprising twists at the end which make it hard to pinpoint the actual intended ‘climax’ of the story. But it is only after these twists that a lot of the truths are revealed and the final pieces of the jigsaw puzzle fall into place – Only then do you realize that Hoffman had been building up to them by placing small, seemingly unobtrusive ‘clues’ from the first chapter onwards, and you will definitely find yourself going back to re-read at least a few of these clues and feeling a bit stupid that you didn’t see it coming!
The plot is hence very complex, even if it is not visible to the casual eye, and Hoffman has laid enough groundwork for the story-lines of the future books, having left so much unsaid and unsolved.
Lastly it is the high emotional quotient in our introduction to this magical world (especially in the latter part of the book) that makes it easier for us to fall in love with Talia and look forward to the sequels to come.