When malaria leaves 14-year-old Nicolò Zen alone, homeless and destitute, he does what any music-loving Venetian orphan with a magical clarinet would do: He masquerades as a female street musician in the hopes that he’ll be taken in by the Ospedale della Pietà, the girls’ orphanage that houses an orchestra run by Master Antonio Vivaldi. And, as you might expect, by the end of the first chapter, Nicolò has succeeded in doing just that.
It doesn’t take a whole lot of time for Nicolò to get found out, though, so as high-interest as that premise sounds, it wouldn’t be fair to recommend Nicholas Christopher’s The True Adventures of Nicolò Zen as some sort of musical Bloody Jack. In a classic Poor Boy Seeks His Fortune storyline, Nicolò leaves the orphanage, meets the magician who created his instrument, earns wealth and fame, grows up, and finally returns home to save the life and honor of his lady love and then lives happily ever after.
While that might seem like a spoileriffic way to tell you what the book is about, it’s not: Nicolò narrates it from a much older, more mature perspective, and it’s pretty clear from the outset that he’s doing just fine. That memoir feel will likely make or break the book for readers: Some will like the throwback feel to more old school children’s adventure stories, while others will miss the immediacy, the passion and the heart of more modern fare.
The settings and the historical details are described with affection, energy and verve, but Nicolò, his love interest—who we never get to know very well at all*—and the villain are never more than stock characters from a fairy tale: None of the three ever exhibits much in the way of personality or growth. Even more frustratingly, the most interesting character in the book—the magician Massimo the Magnificent—is also sketchily drawn. He and his entire household are fascinating…but despite some impressively stylish home furnishings, we never get more than smoke and mirrors.
And that’s the book in a nutshell: all surface, no substance.
This is the third YA title I’ve read in recent memory—the first two being Fiona Paul’s Venom and Sasha Gould’s Cross My Heart—set in Venice, and quality-wise, none of the three moved beyond merely competent** territory into the realm of FLAT-OUT GOOD or even JUST PLAIN MEMORABLE. Which, considering the super-cool setting, is so unfortunate.
Ah, well. Maybe my next Venice read will be a better fit. If you’ve got a recommendation, I’m all ears. (But before you recommend John Berendt’s The City of Falling Angels, take heed: Due to my unendingly cranktastic nature, I liked it far less than Kirkus did.)
*Which was such a missed opportunity: rather than seeing Nicolò and Adriana fall in love in the midst of what would have been some very interesting dynamics in the orphanage, we just get…instalove.
**And not all of them even made it that far.
If she isn't writing Bookshelves of Doom or doing her librarian thing, Leila Roy might be making stuff for her Etsy shop while re-watching Veronica Mars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Babylon 5, Black Books or Twin Peaks. Well, that or she’s hanging out on Twitter. Or both.