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 d├ęcor. 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some time ago, a traveller came from your world to mine. It was hundreds of years ago in your time, though not in mine. He was the first to discover the secret, the first member of the brotherhood I belong to. He was the first Stravagante.

Mary Hoffman