Author: Fiona Paul
Genre: Historical Fiction, Mystery, Romance, Young Adult
Publisher: Philomel (Penguin Young Readers)
Publication Date: October 2012
Hardcover: 432 Pages
Cassandra Caravello is one of Renaissance Venice’s lucky elite: with elegant gowns, sparkling jewels, her own lady’s maid, and a wealthy fiancé, she has everything a girl could desire. Yet ever since her parents’ death, Cassandra has felt trapped, alone in a city of water, where the dark and labyrinthine canals whisper of escape.
When Cass stumbles upon a murdered woman—practically in her own backyard—she’s drawn into a dangerous world of courtesans, killers, and secret societies. Soon, she finds herself falling for Falco, a mysterious artist with a mischievous grin… and a spectacular skill for trouble. Can Cassandra find the murderer, before he finds her? And will she stay true to her fiancé, or succumb to her uncontrollable feelings for Falco?
Beauty, love, romance, and mystery weave together in a stunning novel that’s as seductive and surprising as the city of Venice itself.
Stand alone or series: Book One in the Secrets of the Eternal Rose series
How did I get this book: Review Copy from the Publisher
Why did I read this book: Renaissance Italy – particularly in the grand city of Venice – is an oft romanticized historical era, and one that I particularly enjoy reading of, and have ever since I took a fascinating history seminar in the subject back in my undergrad days. The role of women, particularly in 1600 Venice, is fodder for some really interesting history and historical fiction – so when I learned of Fiona Paul’s debut novel Venom, I was thrilled to give it a shot.
Cassandra Caravello is a teenager in Renaissance Venice – orphaned at a young age, Cass lives with her elderly Aunt on her grand estate, and has a promising future. Betrothed to a rich young noble, spending her days planning weddings, picking out dresses and jewelry, Cassandra’s future seems immutable – she will soon be married, and continue with her gilded, quiet life. But all that changes when one of her best friends dies, fallen victim to illness. When Cass pays her respects following the funeral, she discovers that her friend’s body has been taken and replaced with that of a murdered courtesan – and Cassandra seems to be next on the murder’s list. With the help of an unlikely ally in the handsome figure of Falco, a penniless artist, Cass scours the city of Venice to uncover the man behind the murders before it is too late.
As I said before, I was excited to take on Venom: set in 1600 Venice, a novel examining the dynamics and power of women in Renaissance Italy, and a mystery involving murder most foul? How could I refuse? Unfortunately, Venom was an overall tasteless experience – its characters are abrasive and underdeveloped, its mystery transparent and similarly undercooked, and the entire setting of the book is unconvincing and egregiously contemporary.
Let’s start with the characters. Cassandra – or Cass, as she is called by all who know her – is the heroine of Venom, playing the role of Rebellious Headstrong Noblewoman. Cassandra is exceptionally literate and educated, yet is lacking in some much needed common sense. Predictably beautiful (in an unassuming, effortless, and self-deprecating kind of way, naturally), Cass is an amalgam of any number of typical romantic contemporary YA heroines, making her seem pale, repetitive, and ultimately forgettable. It doesn’t help that she comes across as annoyingly superficial and a shoddy friend (to both her murdered friend, and to her supposed best friend) and niece. Of course, the kicker is her basic insta-attraction to bad boy/leading man, Falco.
Venom‘s plot is driven almost entirely by Falco’s goading of Cassandra. Falco, mind you, is a complete ASS – he tempts Cass out of her sheltered life, he leads her headlong into danger in the late hours of night, into seedy taverns and in the less reputable whorehouses, then abandons her to fend for herself! This is the boy over whom readers are meant to swoon (one supposes?) but lies, manipulates, and shamelessly uses Cass. Other than his ‘crooked grin’ and blue eyes, there doesn’t seem to be much to endear Falco to either Cassandra or to the reader. One could argue that both Cass and Falco are meant to be ambiguous, unlikeable characters – but that’s not my interpretation of the duo. Rather, they feel lacking depth and conviction, making them seem underdeveloped, not intentionally ambivalent.
By far, though, the most frustrating thing about Venom is its blatant disregard for historical period or setting. I do not know what research went into this book, and while I am no expert in 1600 Venice, I do know that many of the facets of this book are patently false. For a noblewoman to be so literate and educated – in a time and city in which noblewomen were sequestered and disallowed from certain rooms in their own households – is a pretty significant oversight. Too, Cassandra’s voice is overtly contemporary – she writes in a bound journal, she galavants around the streets of Venice willy nilly, she hails gondolas like they are New York City taxi cabs. Cass’s friend Magda, also a teenager and noble, spends her days planning her wedding in the most contemporary imagining of the process. There’s no sense of history or authenticity to the book, and this cavalier attitude towards any sense of era integrity is irksome, to say the least.
Compounding these problems is the sluggish plot, which again is catalyzed by the romance between Cass and Falco (and later the insipid love triangle between these two and Cass’s fiance Luca), and not so much the murder mystery. The identity of the killer is fairly obvious, though the added dramatic twist at the book’s climactic reveal adds a nice flourish (melodramatic, but entertaining).
Despite these flaws, I should point out that I did finish the book, and Fiona Paul’s writing is engaging and even handed enough (character issues and historical context aside). I’m sure there are plenty of people out there that will enjoy this book far more than I. But for me? Venom was an unfortunate miss.
Notable Quotes/Parts: From the official excerpt:
The metal gate tilted on one hinge and groaned as the breeze pushed it back and forth, occasionally slamming it against the fence. No doubt this was the clanking noise she had heard from her bed room. Cass passed through the gate and headed off to her left, where Liviana’s family crypt had stood for more than a century. She picked her way across the uneven ground, moving swiftly through the tufts of tall grass, some bleached a ghostly white by the salty air.
Something snapped. A foot, crushing a dead branch. Cass spun around, her eyes picking up movement among the uneven rows of gravestones. A flapping cloak melted into the low shrubbery.
Or had she imagined it? Cass couldn’t be certain. There was no reason for anyone else to be in the graveyard at this hour. Slowly, she scanned the area all around her. Headstones seemed to be tilted at strange angles. A carved angel sculpture on the top of a nearby crypt looked more like a bird of prey than a heavenly being. Bats passed over her head, fluid forms against the static blackness, coasting silently on leathery wings.
Cass shivered—she hated bats. The creatures overhead melted once again into the darkness, but she couldn’t shake the idea that they were toying with her. Stalking her, like vampires would . . .
You can read the full excerpt online HERE.
Rating: 5 – Meh
Reading Next: The Undertakers: Rise of the Corpses by Ty Drago
Buy the Book: (click on the links to purchase)