Masks, courtesans, nefarious plots, plague—Hickman’s (The Aviary Gate, 2008, etc.) panorama of early-17th-century Venice has it all.
It’s 1604 and Venice is awash in rumors about the Sultan’s Blue, a dazzling diamond of 100-plus carats, reputedly stolen from the Ottoman Padushah. Gaming impresario Zuanne Memmo is organizing the Venice equivalent of a marathon game of high-stakes poker, at which the participants deposit all they have—in advance—to play to win the fist-sized gem. English merchant Paul Pindar wants in—he’s been bankrupted by too many despairing binges after his betrothed, Celia Lamprey, was kidnapped by pirates and sold into the harem of the very same Padushah in Constantinople. She was, he thinks, killed in an escape attempt. Celia’s fellow captive Annetta met a better fate—richly rewarded for her service to the Sultan’s mother, she’s returned in triumph to the Venetian convent were she was once a lowly servant-nun. As Pindar squabbles with his rebellious valet John Carew (who has a proclivity for seducing nuns) and his erstwhile employer Ambrose Jones, he of the Cyrano-sized nose and hidden agenda, another story line slouches toward Venice: An all-female troupe of tumblers and magicians, led by gentle giantess Maryam, wends its way along the coast. A smuggler, Bocelli, bribed the troupe to take in a young woman and her newborn, born with the tail of a mermaid. The mother cannot speak and appears to have been savagely beaten, her legs deliberately broken. Once in Venice, Maryam realizes that Bocelli planned to sell the newborn to Ambrose, who brokers oddities, dead or alive. Constanza, a kindly courtesan, tries to dissuade Pindar from playing for the Blue. She can’t confess her love for him—that would violate the code of her profession.
The plot is as murky as the giant rock’s provenance, but the supple prose invites the reader to double back for clues. The ending, though, skirts a fine line between predictability and anticlimax.