The De Wardins’ debut is set in the fictional country of Voskia. As a duchess, Maria Langlord has led a privileged life, but this 19-year-old is not the perfect debutante her parents and their acquaintances believe her to be. Secretly she’s been taking ballet lessons in Unsettled Town, which, though geographically close, is greatly removed from the world Maria has always known. It is here that she meets and becomes involved with a cast of peculiar characters and once again comes in contact with the dangerous but dashing violinist that crashed her birthday party. There’s political unrest in Voskia: a new political party and a presidential candidate, Hillborn, whose racist ideology is stirring up trouble. Maria’s parents and governess have fallen under his spell, even as Maria is making new friends among the Romanies that the party despises. Maria is pulled into the thick of things when she learns that she has an uncle she’s never met and when she’s entrusted with valuable, coveted information. Hillborn’s campaign grows in strength, in part because he has a habit of killing off the opposition. Maria is caught between two worlds, and the actions she takes lead to a cliffhanger ending that sets the stage for a sequel. The novel has a dreamlike quality, particularly in the descriptions of Maria’s forays to Unsettled Town. The wordy writing style has the feel of something written with a thesaurus in one hand: “Lord Byronaless, his bejewelled hands wriggling over his covered cranium, bravely let his short legs laboriously take his stout self in the direction of the individual who had fired: Chief of Police Croft Rainhard.” Elsewhere, foreign phrases—“Isso ai meu povo! Samba no pe!”—and a few other terms are clarified in footnotes. Still, the imaginary setting and undefined time period allow for comparisons to historical and modern events, and readers who can wade through the clunky text will find an intriguing story with a sympathetic protagonist.
Surrealist scenes and complicated language get in the way of an exciting, suspenseful story that’s part coming-of-age tale, part political thriller.