Sunday, December 28, 2008
Review: The Book of Unholy Mischief, by Elle Newmark
It’s 1498, and the Renaissance is at its height in the city-states of Italy. Savonarola has just been executed in Florence, and Rodrigo Borgia is Pope Alexander VI in Rome. And half of Europe is in a race for dominance across the Atlantic in the New World. Venice is the home for a convergence of cultures in the Mediterranean, allowing its residents to experience foods never before seen in Europe (including the supposedly poisonous “love apple”).
Luciano is a homeless Venetian street urchin, forced to live hand-to-mouth and to steal in order to survive. One stolen pomegranate and Luciano finds himself as the apprentice to the chef of the doge, the secular head of Venice. When the doge (not named here, but probably Agostino Barbarigo) poisons a peasant in the palace’s dining room, Luciano embarks on a search for a highly-prized book that holds secrets that many powerful people will kill for. But what are those secrets?
Venice comes to life in this vibrant novel. The author has clearly done her research; you feel as though you’re walking the streets of the old, decaying city; and the reader never quite shakes off the feeling that danger and evil are luring around each corner.
Food is also described in deep detail in this novel, though the author may have attached too much significance to its impact on the story. There are a few anachronims (such as having tomatoes in 15th century Europe), but they didn't interfere with the story very much. Still, Newmark has a wonderful way with words and a turn of phrase that’s just as magical as the book described within. This is the kind of book that will make you think about it long after you’ve finished reading the last page. I really hate The Da Vinci Code comparisons, but The Book of Unholy Mischief is a much more sophisticated, layered, and intelligent version of that book.
Also reviewed by: S. Krishna Books, Literary License, The Printed Page, Peeking Between the Pages, Book Nut, Medieval Bookworm, Bermudaonion's Weblog, Caribou's Mom