The Book of Unholy Mischief, by Elle Newmark.
The intrigue took place in my youth, when I served as an apprentice to the doge's chef in Venice. I first suspected some unholy mischief when the doge invited an uncouth peasant to dine with him in the palace. In the time-honored tradition of servants everywhere, I assumed my post behind the slightly open service door to the dining room in order to spy, and I marveled at the sight of them together. -- from The Book of Unholy Mischief, page 1 -
Luciano, a street urchin and orphan, is rescued from an uncertain future by Chef Ferrero and made a apprentice in the palace kitchen of Venice. Once ensconced there, his life becomes one of intrigue. It is the mid-fifteenth century, and all of Venice is talking of a magical book which holds the key to love, immortality and power.
In those days a rumor was exciting Venice like a tickling sea breeze from the east. Everyone from the servant classes to the aristocracy was whispering about an old Byzantine book said to contain the formulas of ancient sorcerers. It was told that the book, thought to have been lost in antiquity, was actually hidden somewhere in Venice. I would eventually come to understand how the urgency created by this rumor spurred the chef to take an apprentice. -- from The Book of Unholy Mischief, page 11 -
Luciano is witness to murder, kidnapping, and torture as the doge and other powerful Italians seek the book. But it is the parallel story which I enjoyed even more than the mystery of the sorcerers' book -- that of the growing relationship between Luciano and Chef Ferrero.
Luciano, parentless and without direction, is the perfect heir for the Chef who has three daughters but no son. The chef is at heart a teacher, and he uses the lessons of food to show Luciano that not only is God in each of us, giving us the potential for greatness, but that there is untested strength inside us as well. He shows Luciano the truths of life, and teaches him integrity and honesty. As Luciano struggles with maintaining his connections with the street urchins he has befriended and swoons with love for a young girl living in a nunnery, Chef Ferrero guides him toward a future filled with hope.
Elle Newmark has crafted a story full of the lushness of fifteenth century Venice. Her wonderful descriptions of food give the novel color and texture. She captures the evil of greed and wealth which prowled the halls of the palaces and homes of the powerful during that time.
After Venice, I thought I knew debauchery, but I wasn't prepared for the two-faced tawny opulence of Rome, the Venus flytrap, an exotic beauty with a taste for flesh. Being much older than Venice, Rome had had centuries more to perfect the art of duplicity. While the rest of Italy sang folk tunes, Rome chanted in an ancient basso of contrived moral authority. The unchallenged image of a saintly Rome obscured the life-and-death power struggles festering beneath its gilded domes and embroidered vestments. If Venice was a slut, Rome was a murderer. -- from The Book of Unholy Mischief, page 199 -
The Book of Unholy Mischief is a whirlwind adventure story with moral underpinnings. The mysterious book, thought to be the key to so much, represents how far astray a person can go when their eyes are clouded by dreams of power -- whether it be power over life and death, power over love, or power over another person. Although set in an historical time frame, the novel is really not an historical novel. Newmark takes some liberties with certain historical facts, but she notes in the afterword: "My primary objective was to tell a good tale." And in this, she has succeeded.
I thoroughly enjoyed my travels with Luciano through the streets and kitchens of Venice. The Book of Unholy Mischief will appeal to readers who enjoy books about food, but more importantly those who wish to immerse themselves in a story that catapults them to another time and place.
Four stars out of five.
Catch all of Wendy Robard's reviews in her fabulous blog, "Caribousmom".
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