Fiction relays upon a reader’s ability to suspend their disbelief, and in order for that to happen, the writer must create a set of circumstances logical enough within their realm to seem realistic. Stravaganza: City of Masks hasn’t mastered this. Unfortunately, it’s another example of a great concept ruined by bad storytelling. Our ‘protagonist’ (and I use that lightly) is Lucian, a boy with cancer who discovers he can travel to a different world (a pseudo-Venice as it were) through the acquisition of a magical notebook. However, this ability is never really the foundation of the plot; instead, Miss Hoffman tends to write where the wind takes her, forming a mix-match of elements that are never deeply explored, into a plot sequence which never links together. The idea of Stravagation is lost two or three chapters in, and it takes any intrigue with it.
The plot isn’t terrible, just unrefined and unfocused. The main problem that had me struggling to continue, was the lack of good pacing and tension. Nothing binds this novel to a climax, the story just flits from moment to moment – Lucian is taken as a ‘mondolier’, and then becomes an apprentice to a ‘scientist’, for no real reason – regardless of the need for consistency, and forgets ideas as it runs. Hoffman doesn’t linger on anything and consequently, her characters are dull, her world is contradictory and her climax ineffective. Characterisation is poor; Lucian’s illness acts as a cheap tactic to draw sympathy from the audience, and it doesn’t work. I never cared for any of the characters. Their plights seemed childish, and without conditioning or backdrop, and they carry no depth or humanity. Dialogue is forced and often only two or three lines long, so inter-relations between characters is stagnant, and nearly always told as oppose to shown. Lucian and Arianna are supposed to be in their mid teens, but I thought they were nine based on how they conversed.
P.O.V switches every couple of pages, sometimes three times in one spread, to characters I had forgotten existed and who held no real ground in the story at all. Again, Hoffman seems to take the story on a whim, just going where she wants to write about, and not bothering to fill the spaces left behind. I never had a solid grounding on where I was, or who I was with. It’s a case of too many characters spoiling the broth – some individuals only appeared twice in the whole plot, and yet I was supposed to empathize with their mind-set. I simply couldn’t.
Personally, the book bored me. Nothing really happens. Conflicts are almost always resolved a few pages after they appear, and no antagonist is involved. We hear about the dreadful di Chimicii, but all they seem to want is a treaty signed which would unite Talia with a perfectly functioning republic. I couldn’t see anything sinister behind their actions. Questions asked, like ‘Why is Stravagation important, what’s it’s purpose?’ are never answered. I don’t understand why Hoffman created a parallel world and didn’t just use Renascence Italy for Lucian’s escape. There is a scene in which Lucian goes to the real modern day Italy and alludes to the differences, which I couldn’t see. Apart from butchering Italian words, nothing is really altered. I feel the scene would have been more affective if the protagonist had been contrasting contemporary and historical Italy, rather than almost exact replica of it. I suppose the author alludes to magic a couple of times, but again, she never explores what it is and how it is influential to her created world. Talia is boring and childish, and contains no realism or logic.
I think Hoffman underestimated her intended audience, is all. Like I have said, the story isn’t terrible, just misguided and too quick to get to it’s end. This is not a Y.A novel. This is a children’s book. I could honestly see children between the ages of 9-12 enjoying the contents. It’s an easy read, designed for settling kids at bedtime, but anyone above that age-group would probably be disappointed. I certainly was. Who knows, perhaps the realm is explored better as the series progresses, but I’m not sure I’ll ever find out.