Friday, August 31, 2012

Series Review: Stravaganza

by Mary Hoffman
Series: Stravaganza #1
Paperback, 352 pages
Published September 9th 2004 by Bloomsbury (first published 2002)
Age Recommendation: Young Adult

Summary (from Goodreads):
In modern-day London, Lucien Mulholland undergoes chemotherapy treatments, but when he falls asleep clutching a mysterious book his father has given him, he is transported - or "stravagated" - to an enchanting 16th-century Venice-like city called Bellezza, in the country Talia. Lucien can return only if he can get hold of the book again. In this colorful other world, rich with court intrigues and magic, he feels vibrantly alive, as opposed to his pain-ridden days back in England; his hair has grown back and he eats with relish. Bellezza is also where, as "Luciano," he meets lovely 15-year-old Arianna and Rodolfo, who created the book that acts as Lucien's "stravagation" talisman. Rodolfo explains that a stravagante is "a wanderer between worlds," and also the history of this magical travel. Now the secret brotherhood dedicated to keeping the two worlds separate is being challenged by a faction with evil intent. Soon "Luciano" is caught up in their power struggle and learns there is a cost when one cannot stravagate properly.

Although the Stravaganza books may not have exceptional writing or amazingly memorable characters, I was perfectly happy reading all six books back to back and certainly plan to continue with the next books when they are published. There are three things that kept me interested in this series: the alternate sixteenth-century Italy, the intricate politics, and the dual narratives.

Much of the story takes place in Talia, an alternate version of Italy in the 1500s. I really liked this aspect of the story because there were enough references to actual Italian history and cities to either learn about the cities if one is unfamiliar or to create a fun game if one is familiar. For example, City of Masks takes place in Bellezza, the equivalent of Venice. Even though I don't know Venice, I could easily envision the places shown in the novel. The third book, however, takes place in Giglia, the alternate Florence, which I am very familiar with. In that case, it was tons of fun to figure out exactly which landmarks were being talked about (e.g. Palazzo di Chimici = Palazzo Medici Riccardi).

In each of the books in the series, the main character is a teen from Barnsbury, a town in present-day England. Each finds a talisman that transports them while they sleep to Talia, returning them to their bodies in England when they wake. This travel is called Stravigation, and those who make the journey are Stravagantes (which gives the series its name).

In the first book, City of Masks, Lucien, the main character and an especially pivotal character for the rest of the series, finds a notebook that transports him to Bellezza. From that point on, each book focuses on another character and another town. The second book, City of Stars, focuses on Georgia, whose talisman, a statue of a winged horse, takes her to Remora (= Siena), home of the Stellata ( = Palio), an annual horse race between different sections of the city. The third volume, City of Flowers, takes place, as I mentioned, in Giglia ( = Florence) and centers around Sky, who travels by way of a glass bottle. The series continues in this way through Padvia ( = Padua), Classe ( = Classe / Ravenna), and Fortezza ( = Lucca).

Usually I would be put off by all these different main characters and locations, but the thing about this series is that despite these differences between books, the story for the most part continues with a single narrative, uninterrupted between books.

Sure, after a few books it gets a little hard to suspend disbelief that the entire giant cast of characters (or most of the main players in any case) happen to travel from city to city and conveniently coincide with the Stravagante's appearance, but that is one of the things you just have to go with as a reader.

In City of Masks, the politics are pretty straightforward. There are a lot of people trying to maneuver and manipulate the situation to get what they want, but there are very clear "good guys" and "bad guys." One of the things I so enjoyed about this series, though, was that with each book, the "bad guys" gained more and more depth, until, in the most recent book, City of Swords, there are only two or three characters whom I would really label "bad." (Sure, greedy, insensitive, misinformed, etc., but not "bad.")

There's also a giant cast of characters that grows with every book. I was fine without the index of characters in the back for the first five books, but by the time I got to the sixth book, I was checking the lists and family tree constantly for the first 50 pages.

One of the few things that really bothered me about the series was the way that Mary Hoffman broke some of her own rules. In the first and second books, she established that a talisman could only take a person to and from one place. By the fourth book, this became a bit of a problem, so she spent much of the fourth book trying to find a way around this rule, and by the fifth book disregarded it entirely and had Dethridge (the authority on Stravigation) come up with a new discovery of how to travel to various cities with the same talisman, allowing Isabel to travel to nearly every city in Talia. This particular circumstance was my main complaint with the series, since Hoffman ought to stick to the rules she herself created. Once you've established how the world works, you can't just go changing it five books in because it's rather inconvenient.

Overall Thoughts: Other than my one complaint of inconsistency, I quite liked the Stravaganza books. They were nothing amazing but fun and interesting, and exactly what I needed at the time that I read them. If you're in the mood to visit Italy and would enjoy some politics in the mix, try picking these up.

1 comment:

Daniela said...

Ooh, these sound interesting


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