Venom by Fiona Paul

Venom (Secrets of the Eternal Rose)
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I’ve found myself reading a lot of young adult science fiction and fantasy recently.  Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like the really good stories are ending up on those shelves and not the “adult” shelves.  I think this is a combination of the fact that many established authors are trying their hand at stories for the teen audience, and the fact that young adult fiction has gotten more comfortable with trying new things.  In that latter category is Fiona Paul’s Venom, a novel set in the Renaissance Italy that features both a love story and a compelling mystery.

(Description nicked from B&N.com.)

“When Cassandra Caravallo visits her friend Liviana’s crypt and finds a murdered courtesan inside, her world is turned upside down. Before she knows it, Cass is involved with Falco, a grave-robbing artist, and on her way to discovering corruption in the elite Venetian society.

But will she find the man who’s been savagely murdering beautiful young girls before he finds her? Will she stay true to her fiance, who’s off studying law in France? Or will she succumb to Falco’s charms? Beauty, love, romance and murder combine in a novel that’s as seductive and stunning as Venice itself.”

I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the love story in this novel does not overwhelm the mystery.  The author has taken a very morbid subject—grave robbing—and woven it in as part of a satisfyingly complex murder mystery.  I admit, I only have passing knowledge of the thriving trade in corpses during this period of history, and the information on what they might have been used for (besides medical research) has me intrigued and wanting to learn more.

The mystery itself provides the characters with ample opportunities to travel all around Venice and encounter people of all classes and stations in life.  By placing Cassandra just outside the city proper, it forces her to break out of her isolation and encounter the city in all its manifestations.  Readers will be taken to imposing churches, brothels both bawdy and classy, art galleries, and neighborhoods from poor to wealthy.  It’s a clever way to vary the location and give readers a good cross section of what life was like back then without straying into infodump territory.

Regarding the romance, I thought it was quite believable.  Cassandra is portrayed as somewhat sheltered, both because she is a young woman and because of her family situation.  She’s engaged to a young man whom she hasn’t seen in years, and her only companions are an elderly aunt and a few servants with occasional visits from a friend.  The appearance of someone like Falco—handsome, charismatic, and utterly unpredictable—would enter the life of someone like Cass with the force of an earthquake.  And yet, since she’s written as fairly entrenched in the section of society in which she lives, it also makes sense that she remains almost completely faithful to her fiancé.  The lack of a “head over heels”, no-holds-barred love affair is rare, and it made me really enjoy the tension between Cass and Falco.

I loved Paul’s use of language as she tells her story.  She’s evocative and descriptive without going overboard and becoming too flowery for the seriousness of the tale she’s telling.  This time period was one heavily focused on art and beauty, and the prose in this novel matches that sensibility.  It makes the book a delight to read, not just for plot and characterization, but simply for its own sake.

Fiona Paul may use a pen instead of a brush, but Venom is as skillfully painted as a work by an Italianate master.  The rich colors and flowing vistas draw the eye, but always there is the darkness lurking at the edges and sinister shapes in the background.  There’s still plenty of story left to tell in this Venetian intrigue, and I for one can’t wait to see what happens next!

Also by this author: Belladonna

This review appeared on Owlcat Mountain on July 24, 2012.

Series: Secrets of the Eternal Rose
ISBN: 9780399257254
Publisher: Penguin Teen
Page Count: 432
Publication Date: October 30, 2012
Acquired: Provided by the publisher
Author Website
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