July 8, 2009
Review: The Book of Unholy Mischief
By Elle Newmark
Luciano is a thief. He doesn't have many other options, living on the streets of Venice. But one lucky day he is taken as an apprentice by the doge's chef, who has his own reasons. After Luciano witnesses the doge murdering a peasant - and then pouring liquid down the dead man's throat - he begins questioning Chef Ferrero to find out what's going on.
I enjoyed the setting. The Borgia Pope is in power, the Renaissance is underway . . . it's a time when new knowledge mingled with codified superstition. The city of Venice is pretty interesting itself, and I love touches like the disdain the inhabitants have for the Germans, who drink beer and smoke pork. My only problem is sometimes the characters will say something that takes me out of the setting. Luciano mentions his short childhood, but seems to refer to the post-Victorian version of the concept. Chef Meunier, the former teacher of Chef Ferrero, finishes a statement with, "True story." Now, I liked when Micol Ostow used those same words in GOLDENGIRL - because I thought it was a good use of modern slang. For a brief moment the Frenchman sounded like a teenage girl in my head.
I think I would've been less distracted from the setting if the story had been more absorbing at first. Though it starts with a murder, THE BOOK OF UNHOLY MISCHIEF takes a number of pages to get moving. The first part of the novel tells of Luciano's early life and how he originally spent his time in the kitchen. It takes him awhile to notice the mysteries and intrigues occuring and to become interested.
Chef Ferrero is educated and believes strongly in the power of books. He possesses one that the entire city of Venice is looking for. There are recipes for things other than food. It can be used for a love potion, or darker purposes. And everyone wants it for their own reasons. Even Luciano wants it, to try to win the love of the nun Francesca. (Luciano's love is somewhat grating at points, as it's of the moony, young sort. He's quite passionate about it before even speaking to the girl.)
I love books, I love food, I love intrigue, I love thieves and spies, but THE BOOK OF UNHOLY MISCHIEF didn't quite work for me. Luciano was a charming protagonist, but he was bogged down by the slow beginning. Elle Newmark does offer some answers even at the beginning, since the older, narrating Luciano knows more than the younger one, but the pace still didn't work for me. THE BOOK OF UNHOLY MISCHIEF does play with a number of interesting concepts and does improve once the plot starts rolling.