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Stravaganza - City of Stars

Style: Average

Attitude: Take Care → Fairly Positive

In Brief: Some crude taunts about women and horse-riding. An unjustified suggestion that an older man is a sexual predator. Casual assumptions about annulment of marriage. Morally problematic subplot involving an apparent suicide. Contrast between Georgia's difficult family and Paolo's cheerful and large one. The Duke's true love for his family despite his machiavellian attitude.

Cover of Stravaganza - City of Stars

Author: Mary Hoffman

Series: Stravaganza

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Published in: 2003

Age Range: Young Teens

Period: Various

Setting: England / Talia

Genres:  FantasyTime-Travel


Characters:

  • Georgia is a horse-keen 14-year-old whose mother has recently taken up with Ralph and his 16-year-old son Russell. Russell delights in probing Georgia's insecurities and taunting her about them.
  • Niccolo is the youngest son of the ruling di Chimici family. Crippled by a horse-riding accident which was his own fault, he does as well as he can on crutches, but faces a lonely and uncertain future.
  • Luciano, formerly Lucien Mulholland, would like to marry Ariana, now Duchess of Bellezza, but the scheming Duke di Chimici has ordered one of his sons, Gaetano, to marry the Duchess.

Synopsis:

Georgia, taunted by her older step-brother, finds solace in horse-riding and the friendship of the owner of a curio shop where she buys a winged horse which transports her at night to the Talia of 400 years ago. She finds herself in Palio where the great horse race of the city's year is about to take place. The race itself is always the occasion for double-dealing and trickery, but in addition the Duke di Chimici sees it as an opportunity to gain control of Bellezza, currently ruled by the young Duchess Ariana.

The scheming Duke has ordered his son Gaetano to marry the Duchess, relying on his brother the Pope to carry out the marriage. Gaetano prefers to marry Francesca who married an elderly noble in Bellezza in a bid to gain control of the city state.

Notes:

Mary Hoffman is certainly keen on Renaissance Italy. The Talia in this series to which the gifted Stravaganti travel in their sleep is both reassuringly similar and beguilingly different. In the first book, most of the action took place in Talia since Lucien was seriously ill from cancer and spent a lot of time in bed and asleep. In this episode there is a direct contrast between Georgia's distorted family life in our world and the healthier family milieu of the Montalbanis and the more political but still family-minded di Chimicis in Talia.

Russell, Georgia's older step-brother is well-portrayed as a nasty piece of work, needling away at Georgia behind her parents' backs. Their respective parents have only just started living together and their desire to see things work out make them unsympathetic to Georgia's claims against her brother. In particular, Russell makes crude sexual references to the fact that she gets on better with the horses and the other women at the stables than with anyone at school. Later he uncovers a quiet friendship between her and the elderly owner of a curio shop and brings it to the adults' attention, pretending to be concerned that the old man might be a child-molester but in reality simply looking to make Georgia's life more miserable.

It is against this backdrop that Georgia finds it easy to escape more and more to Talia and to the horse races there. To an extent this whole series is about the avenues of escape which people choose when faced with difficulties: Lucien with a terminal illness, Georgia with an intolerable home life, and a later character with his mother's depression. By contrast, as a matter of fact, the Stravaganti from Talia are more firmly grounded and their explorations are motivated more by a scientific humanism. Naturally, in real life, one can only escape so far — into dreams or drugs or mind-numbing vices of one sort or another. In this invented universe, however, the transition can be permanent. Lucien's translation was accidental, Georgia never attempts anything permanent. But Niccolo is a different case.

This is, perhaps, the most centrally worrying point in the book and it is complicated by the concepts of travel between the worlds. Those who can Stravagate between our world and Talia do so when they fall asleep here. They return by falling asleep in the Talia. As a visual cue, in Talia they have no shadow. While they are in Talia their body in our world appears to be asleep, but a sleep from which they cannot be roused: a coma. If they are forced to remain in Talia, their body here will remain in a coma until it dies. At which point Talia becomes their own world and they gain a shadow. This is what happened by accident to Lucien in City of Masks and his body, terminally ill, died here when his life-support was switched off. Niccolo, crippled from a riding accident, is gripped by the thought that the medicine of our world could cure him, even if it meant staying here. He persuades Luciano to help him feign an attempted suicide in Talia leaving his body there in a coma and being “found” by Georgia here. His father, machiavellian politician though he is, is heartbroken at his son's condition and finally smothers him with a pillow, causing “Nick” to become a permanent resident here. It's a nasty combination of an apparent suicide and a “mercy killing” of a boy in a coma, and while several characters express doubts about the political wisdom of the action, none touches on the question of death. The moral complication of course is that Niccolo is arguably not dead since he — and it is the same he, with the same character and memories — lives on in our world. Clearly the situation resonates with the idea of an afterlife to which one can strive after, but that founders very seriously when you consider that the “afterlife” of one parallel world is simply the other. Our world has medical advances, Talia has a simpler way of life. There is no advance, nothing to strive for, merely a translation from one reality to another.

This being Renaissance Italy, there has to be a weak Pope and sure enough this one is the brother of the Duke di Chimici. He is called upon to annul a politically-motivated marriage between the Duke's daughter Francesca and a rich old man. The Duke clearly believes the decision is a merely political one into which the Holy Father can be easily pressured. So I did raise a bit of a cheer when the Pope refuses to play ball: “'Marriage is a sacred institution. It is not to be unmade lightly' .... If Francesca had been elected Duchessa of Bellezza she would have found a way to tolerate her old Bellezzan husband, so the Pope was reluctant to let her escape now that the plan had foundered. It was his duty after all to uphold the sanctity of the marriage.” He does finally decree the annulment after being told that the marriage is unconsummated after a year and the husband possibly impotent.

On the bright side, the internal and external politics around the famous horse race, the division of the city into the Stellata - the zodiac houses, and the excitements of the races in which Georgia must compete at short notice are all compelling. The open friendship of the horse-owning Montalbanis, the cloak-and-dagger espionage between the houses and the Ram's delight in their winged horse are all almost enough to give me an interest in horses. The Arab-Romany characters of the Manoush and the romantic moments between Luciano and Ariana and between Ariana's recently married parents add a certain sparkle. I've enjoyed all the books in this series in their different ways but this is the one I've returned to the most.

Themes:

  • Political marriages
  • The appeal of horse-riding
  • Suicide as a form of escape

Saturday 25th August 2007