Monday, March 16, 2009

An entertaining debut

The Book of Unholy Mischief: A Novel
by Elle Newmark

I read A LOT of thrillers, and can I just say that it's nice to see a talented female writer enter the scene? There aren't many women who write true thrillers, and Elle Newmark is off to a good start.

Please don't let me mislead you by first commenting on her gender. There's nothing particularly feminine or "chick litty" about The Book of Unholy Mischief. On the contrary, there are very few women even in the novel, and in general they aren't very nice. It is the story of Luciano, an orphan raised (barely) on the streets of 15th century Venice. He's had to learn to run and hide and steal to survive. Along with a few rag-tag friends, he's managed a subsistence living up until the day he's caught stealing a pommegranite. The man who catches Luciano in the act is the head chef of the Doge of Venice. Fearing the worst, Luciano is shocked when instead of being punished he is brought into the palace and given a job as the chef's apprentice. There, he's fed and warm and safe for the first time in his life.

But he's also privvy to intrigue, and there are secrets being discussed in the palace, on the streets, and throughout all of Italy. Specifically, everyone seems to be on the lookout for a mysterious book. The book holds wonders--though no one seems to be exactly sure what they are. But all agree that book is fabulously valuable. The chef, Luciano's now-trusted "Maestro," seems to know more of these matters than he rightly should. Soon Luciano is drawn into the heart of the intrigue, and again finds himself fighting for his life. His years on the street have prepared him for the tests he faces.

This is a fun, fast-paced read. The 15th century Venetian setting was fascinating and convincingly-drawn, without being one of those intricately-researched epics that drags on and on for hundreds of pages of description. Newmark paints a scene, but doesn't belabor the matter. Likewise, the characters were interesting and believable. The plot itself wasn't entirely unfamiliar, but I felt like there were aspects of the story that were pleasingly fresh. Particularly the revelation of what the book actually is.

I'd recommend The Book of Unholy Mischief for fans of this sort of fiction, and will myself look forward to seing what Ms. Newmark comes up with next.

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