Imagine that you go to sleep one night and suddenly find yourself transported to 16th-century Venice, except that it isn’t exactly 16th-century Venice but a sort of parallel Venice called ‘Bellezza’, a Venice that is ruled by a ‘Duchessa’ rather than a Doge and in which people travel in ‘mandolas’ rather than gondolas. This is what happens to Lucien, the protagonist of Mary Hoffman’s new novel, Stravaganza: City of Masks. A born ‘stravagante’, Lucien has the magical ability to pass between worlds as long, that is, as he keeps a firm grip on the Venetian notebook given to him by his father.
Parallel worlds and magical talismans are common motifs in children’s books. Hoffman’s City of Masks, however, is proof that in the hands of a master storyteller, the time-slip fantasy can still surprise and entertain.
One of the most fascinating and compelling aspects of City of Masks is the incredible depth and complexity of the book’s protagonist. In Bellezza Lucien is physically strong and commanding, but in his own world he is stricken with cancer, a disease that has left him almost completely debilitated.
Equally powerful is the double-edged nature of Bellezza, a city founded on illusion and subterfuge. When Lucien first arrives there, he is completely intoxicated by the sheer beauty and elegance of the Bellezzan lifestyle; as he becomes more familiar with the city, however, the facades and masks begin to collapse, revealing a city founded on lies, deception and charades.
A sensuous and luxurious read, which manages to capture the essence of Venice and the Venetian way of life, City of Masks is undoubtedly the best book I’ve read all year. I wait with bated breath for the next book in the series, City of Stars.