Sunday, February 24, 2008

Mary Hoffman

Stravaganza, Part One:
City of Masks

by Mary Hoffman
Recommended Age: 13+

In our world, in present-day London, a boy named Lucien Mulholland is fighting a battle with cancer. The chemotherapy alone is almost killing him, and he spends a lot of time at home, tired, weak, and bald. But whenever he falls asleep with a certain notebook in his hands, Lucien finds himself in a strange, parallel-world version of 17th century Venice. A place where Lucien seems solid enough, though he has no shadow.

In that world, Venice is called Bellezza, and unmarried women over 16 are required by law to wear masks, including the Duchessa, who both rules and personifies the beautiful, floating city. In that world, all of northern Talia (what we would call Italy), except Bellezza, is controlled by the conniving di Chimici family. And Lucien, suddenly appearing out of a very different, future world, may be the key to whether Bellezza falls to the di Chimici’s as well.

Lucien learns that he is a type of traveler called a Stravagante. Their discipline, linked to what our world calls alchemy, was started by a man from Elizabethan England – who is still living at the time of Lucien’s adventure, thanks to the unstable way time flows between the two worlds. Now, Lucien has a double life, enjoying daytimes in Bellezza while his body sleeps through the night back at home. And his adventure in Bellezza soon begins to consume even his waking life in 21st century London, as he helps foil assassination plots, falls in love with an audacious island girl, and makes both friends and enemies in high places. But as he is increasingly torn between his concerned parents and the thrills and beauties of stravagating to Bellezza, a final, tragic test will prove whether or not Lucien can balance both lives.

This sumptuous, exciting, and emotionally engaging tale is an auspicious beginning for a series that continues in Part Two: City of Stars.

Stravaganza, Part Two:
City of Stars

by Mary Hoffman
Recommended Age: 13+

Georgia is not your typical romantic heroine. Tomboyish, with facial piercings and a passion for horses, she hides two agonizing secrets. The first is the death of her violin teacher’s son, the only boy she ever had a crush on. Her other, not-so-secret anguish lives across the hallway from her bedroom, and his name is Russell. The stepbrother from hell, Russell cannot get past his resentment of his father’s marriage to Georgia’s mother. Like a true bully, he takes it out on Georgia.

It is while escaping from Russell’s cruelty that Georgia first stravagates. That is, she falls asleep with a particular talisman in her hands – in this case, a miniature horse with wings. And then she wakes up in another world altogether: a world similar to the city of Siena, Italy, in the 1600s. Unknowingly, Georgia has become a Stravagante – which means she has something important to do in the remarkable city that calls itself Remora.

In this version of Italy, called Talia, the brothers Romulus and Remus founded separate cities – but the one did not kill the other. And strangely, Remus’ city, Remora, is the principal one where the Pope dwells. Another amazing thing about Remora is that it is divided into Twelfths, each named after a Zodiac sign and each owing formal loyalty to one of the city-states of Talia. The Twelfths have alliances and rivalries based on astrological symbolism, and they all take place in an annual bareback horse race in which the competition is incredibly intense.

And now, as Georgia is swept up in the preparations for the Stellata race, fateful things are happening. A winged horse has been born — the first in living memory, and bound to be good luck for the Twelfth of the Ram where it was born. Then the winged horse is kidnapped...and so is the young jockey who is supposed to race for the Ram. Also, the new, young Duchessa from Bellezza (think “Venice”) has been invited to Remora for the race, while the leading family of northern Talia – the dynastic di Chimicis – are trying to arrange a marriage with her. And of all people to show up among the visiting Stravaganti from Bellezza, Georgia meets Lucien: the one boy she really liked, until (in her world) he died. Turns out he’s a Stravaganti too, and even more problematic for Georgia, he is in love with the young Duchessa who is being wooed by a scion of the di Chimicis.

If you thought that was enough plot material to be going on with, just wait. For a couple of the younger di Chimicis aren’t so bad. One of them, unfortunately for Lucien, is the prince who is vying for Arianna’s hand. The other is a beautiful, but physically disabled, youth who wants to stravagate to Georgia’s world to be healed. But this would mean letting the young prince’s body die in the world of Talia – a project that could endanger Lucien and Georgia’s lives, and the peace of all of Talia. Meanwhile, back at home, Georgia is trying to avoid raising suspicions about all the time she spends “out cold” in her coma-like, stravagating state.

So what starts out as a straightforward escape from the painful realities of her life in modern-day London, becomes a crushingly dense juggling routine with many potentially explosive balls hurtling through the air. And the double life begins to take its toll on Georgia, draining her energy. When she takes time to face her problems in one world, things escalate behind her back in the other. And when all her adventures come to a climax at the same time, lives will be changed – for better and for worse.

Here is a miraculous feat of fantasy writing, placed in a unique and richly detailed setting that envelopes you, without question and without ceremony. It charges bravely through challenging territory such as the ethics of adoption, bullying, blended families, suicide, and even the suggestion of child sexual abuse, without forcing trite and simplistic answers. And it features a heroine who is courageous enough to act in a situation where questions of right and wrong could go on indefinitely. I doubt anyone would agree with every choice Georgia makes in this book, but she is definitely worth knowing. I would also be interested in knowing whether there will be a Part Three in the Stravaganza series...

Stravaganza, Part Three:
City of Flowers

by Mary Hoffman
Recommended Age: 13+

The third book in the Stravaganza series reunites many heroes and villains from the previous two books, adds new people and scenery, and brings the series and most of its characters to a climactic confrontation.

Sky Meadows, like the young Stravaganti in the first two books, lives in present-day London near the site of an Elizabethan alchemist’s workshop. Into his grim young life, marred by a sick mother and an absent father, comes a beautiful but mysterious perfume bottle. When he falls asleep holding it, Sky wakes up in another world, another time, another city in an alternate-world version of 16th-century Italy.

In Giglia, the Talian equivalent of Florence, in the weeks leading up to a quadruple marriage of a Duke’s sons, nieces, and cousins, a feud between two wealthy families is about to break out into open war. Vendetta, assassination, spying, and pageantry are all mixed up together, while a dreadlocked boy from a future world, disguised as a novice friar, tries to learn what task he has been brought there to do.

Knives stab, swords clash, poisons burn, and a fiendishly ambitious Duke tries to put Bellezza’s young Duchessa in such a position that she cannot keep him from gaining power over her city. Meanwhile, a circle of concerned Stravaganti try to hold back what seems like inevitable tragedy, even while at least one of them is considering a permanent move from one world to the other. Friendships are tested, family bonds are strained, affairs of the heart run afoul of affairs of state, and all the while the river is rising toward a confluence of human tragedy and natural disaster.

Mary Hoffman’s books plunge you into an unusual, yet exciting world of magic, intrigue, and romance. They aren’t 100% consistent; for example, I still can’t figure out why, at the end of the first book, the doctor closed the eyes of a dead person who had been in a coma for weeks. But they are richly entertaining, compelling reads. And they might even stimulate you to learn about the Italian Renaissance on your own!

UPDATE: According to Mary Hoffman's website, a fourth Stravaganza book - and the first part of a new trilogy - will be released this year, titled City of Secrets. She has also written a standalone novel of mystery and romance set in medieval Italy (the real one, though): The Falconer's Knot.

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