Michelle Lovric writes fiction for adults and children: a common theme of all her novels is a Venetian setting, and it's very clear from a reading of any of her books that she knows Venice very well, and loves it very much - I think it could certainly be argued that Venice is absolutely at the heart of her writing. She also writes non-fiction; most recently she collaborated with Gemma Dowler on a book about her mudered sister, Millie Dowling, which topped the Amazon and Times bestseller charts. She's also compiled numerous anthologies.
This book, which is for children, follows on from several others set in the past, and in a parallel Venice . Geographically it's remarkably similar to the city we know today, but it also features a whole troupe of magical creatures. I was particularly delighted to meet the mermaids again: charming, beautiful, but very down-to-earth (!) creatures who live underneath the city and are distinctly foul-mouthed, owing to the fact that they learned their language from pirates. But new to this book is a whole palazzo full of magical creatures who have been transported (by mistake) from Arabia - including a beautiful and utterly amoral djinniya, who has great powers - which, fortunately for Venice, she is not very competent at handling.
Its human heroine is 12 year old Aurelia Bon, the child of appalling parents who at the beginning of the book are planning to force her to marry the unpleasant son of an unpleasant family; her only other option is to be immured in a nunnery. Aurelia is not the kind of girl to put up with this sort of treatment - she has an extraordinary gift (when she touches a building, her fingers sense its history) and with this, and with a naturally strong personality, comes a firm sense of her own importance. She runs away, and encounters all sorts of dangers but also all manner of wonders.
She has to battle against all sorts of enemies: a jealous historian who envies her ability to pull the crowds, and has designs on her magical fingers; her ghastly suitor and his family; the very creepy priest in charge of the nunnery; a bunch of pirates (who have lots of saving graces); a group of venal politicians/businessmen whose aim is to such Venice dry of her wealth; and the djinniya. The tussle between the latter and Aurelia is positively epic: they're both powerful, both very selfish, and both actually rather likeable - more so as the book goes on and they have to face up to some uncomfortable truths about themselves.
The book is a glorious flight of imagination, with excitement, humour and glamour in shed loads. I would put it at the upper end of middle-grade - particularly near the beginning, there are some quite scary bits, which might be a bit challenging for younger children - but for the right reader, it offers a gorgeously rich reading experience. And there are the other Venetian children's novels to move on to - it's not essential to read them in sequence. So much to enjoy!
Sue Purkiss's latest book is Jack Fortune and the Search for the Hidden Valley.
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