Safiyya: This month, Hailey and I read Mary Hoffman’s Stravaganza: City of Masks, a childrens’s lit/YA novel filled with fantasy adventure, parallel worlds, and political intrigue.
The city-state of Bellezza lives peacefully under the reign of the Duchess Silvia, and her magician-advisor Rodolfo intends to keep it that way. But when a young boy named Lucien travels through space and time from the 21st century England into Bellezza, he inadvertently sets off a series of events that count change the future of Bellezza. Meanwhile, Lucien discovers a strange notebook, and to his amazement, it carries him to a whole different parallel world, where Italy is Talia, Venice is Bellezza, gold tarnishes and silver is prized, and magic is in the air. He befriends a Talian girl named Ariana, falls under the mentorship of Rodolfo, and embarks on the adventure of a lifetime.
I really enjoyed City of Masks, and I’m curious to see where the rest of the Stravaganza series goes. I loved following all the parallels between the two worlds — de Medici becomes di Chimici, etc. — and I loved all of the elaborate political intrigues. Fantasy and historical fiction are individually book-catnip for me. As such, the combined genres in this book were tremendously fun.
Mary Hoffman’s world-building, writing style, and characters were all incredibly compelling. In particular, I was impressed with the complexity and agency of the adult characters. Many authors of children’s literature or YA novels have a tendency to focus entirely on their young protagonists, relegating adults to two-dimensional stereotypes or inactive background décor. By contrast, Silvia and Rodolfo are fascinating, active, and awesome characters, propelling much of the plot with their endless machinations. I also really liked Lucien as a protagonist. He was warm-hearted and curious, quick-witted and compassionate. It’s very easy for the audience-proxy character to become a very boring means of exposition, but Lucien remains compelling throughout the novel.
Pretty much the only major issue I had with this book is the character of Ariana. When she is first introduced, I absolutely loved her. She was ambitious! She was clever! She was a rule-breaker! She saved Lucien’s life before she even knew his name! Unfortunately, the character peters out to a two-dimensional damsel in distress from then on. I kept waiting for Ariana to take charge and demonstrate her agency again, only for her to burst into tears and wait around for a rescue, or forgive Lucien for some trifling annoyance without even telling him about her concerns. It was an annoying and jarring note in a book filled with fascinating women — the duchess Silvia, the lace-making grandmother, Lucien’s mother, the decoy girl Giuliana. When even the midwife who appears for a single scene is more interesting than one of the book’s lead characters, that’s a problem. On the other hand, Duchess Silvia more than makes up for it. She is deliciously devious, brilliant, witty, charismatic, and altogether wonderful.
I would encourage anyone to read this book, regardless of age. Although the book is aimed toward a 9-12 or YA market — and to be clear, I enjoy reading 9-12 or YA books as well — it is a fun adventure that any reader could enjoy.