Publisher: Orion Books
Pages: 417 including Author’s Notes on Venice (Hardback)
Series: The Undrowned Child #1
Teodora has always longed to visit Venice. And at last she has her chance. But strange and sinister things are afoot in the beautiful floating city.
Teo is quickly subsumed into a secret world in which salty-tongued mermaids run subversive printing presses, ghosts good and bad patrol the streets, statues speak, rats read and librarians turn fluidly into cats.
And where a book, The Key to the Secret City, leads Teo straight into the heart of the danger that threatens to destroy the city to which she feels she belongs.
An ancient proverb seems to unite Teo with a Venetian boy, Renzo, and with the Traitor who has returned from the dark past to wreak revenge. . .
But who is the undrowned child destined to save Venice?
First thing’s first – I adore Venice and so am horribly biased in this books favour. It’s a far from perfect book, and I’ll get onto that later, but it really does capture the magic of the city. Or at least it did for me; how someone who has never visited the place would find it though…I’m not that sure. In fact I would probably only gift this to a child who already had some knowledge of, or better yet had actually been to Venice. There’s a handy map with key locations on at the very start of the book and a fantastic set of very accessible author’s notes at the back, but to get full enjoyment from it I do think the reader has to have at least seen a photo of Venice. Because, putting aside the beautiful and lovingly depicted setting, the storyline and characterisation are fairly standard children’s fantasy fare.
Teodora is an orphan, with no knowledge of her real parents but a deep yearning to see Venice. We can already see where the backstory will be going, yes? She also has some pretty nifty abilities, not least a form of magic synaesthesia where she can see people’s words, written in their handwriting, hovering above their head when they speak. She also has a photographic memory, can read people’s hearts and deepest emotions by touching their chest, and can read upside down. After years of nagging, her adoptive parents finally and reluctantly take eleven year old Teodora to see Venice. Problem is that they’re scientists, and the only reason they’re in Venice is for urgent scientific discussions on how to save the city from the sudden and bizarre series of problems that threaten to destroy it; the wells spout boiling poison water and the high lands flood while the lowlands stay dry. And if you think that sounds more like a magical curse that science won’t be able to solve you would be absolutely right.
So it’s a typical orphan discovers a magical society, saves the world/Venice and discovers their true identity after teaming up with a member of the opposite sex that they initially deeply disliked. Oh, and throw in a prophecy that could only be talking about her as well… I probably read hundred’s of these when I was a kid. What sets it out from the rest is the setting and the history. Every little thing – from the big-bad of the book, his child-killing henchman, to the winged lions and giant cats who protect the city – have their basis in Venetian history, folklore, or art. The henchman, horrifically, is apparently from the first group and used to sell a very popular cannibal stew before he was discovered and executed – like a real life Sweeney Todd without the hairdressing or the middle-woman. And it’s titbits like that that really brought the story to life for me and sucked me in. It’s an amazingly informative book and you can tell the author has done a shitload of research, but the facts are worked in almost seamlessly into the story and I rarely felt that I was being lectured or info-dumped on.
And because the writer has such a grip on the sense of place and history, the sense of atmosphere comes off very well too. The prologue is a beautiful thing; a wonderfully creepy and unsettling introduction to the undead antagonist and his powers as, against all advice, a young family attempt to cross the lagoon on a foggy evening to baptise their infant daughter. It’s probably the best moment of the book but the creepy atmosphere does pervade the rest of the novel as well, not least the Brustolons dripping blood from their mouths that start appearing everywhere (though I was very glad when the racist history of these objects and the horrors of the Venetian slave trade were finally addressed). Like most good children’s books for this age group, it’s dark, creepy, and atmospheric with a real sense of danger and doesn’t shy away from the idea of death.
Where it falls down though is the characterisation. Brownie points for Teo’s adoptive parents being genuinely loving towards her, but a couple taken away for making them the sort of oversimplified scientists who don’t get ‘the arts’ at all – at least until the very end. And the rest of the side characters are similarly sketched out or stereotypical. Even Teodora and Renzo I never felt had all that much depth to them. Renzo is clever – which means he knows local history – and a bit of a snob, while Teodora is a generic ‘nice to everyone’ protagonist. Out of the two of them this makes Renzo the more interesting character with the larger story arc, although he doesn’t end up doing that much except providing Teodora with explanations for things. Teodora meanwhile has all these amazing talents but constantly forgets to use them – in fact I’m not sure why the ‘can read people’s hearts by touching them’ power was there at all if it wasn’t actually going to be used for anything. Maybe it’ll be used more effectively in the next book.
The end half of the plot left a little to be desired as well, with the way to defeat the big bad being far too easy and slightly underwhelming. And I wish the magic of The Key to the Secret City had been either a bit more explained or had nothing directly to do with the mermaids. But, to be honest, for what I was reading this book for, these are fairly minor nitpicks. It’s a decently told pageturner with some original touches that I really liked – Theodora’s ability to see the spoken word, for one, and the mermaids having learnt ‘human’ from sailors all having rather coarse language (though it could have done with being more distinctly Italian or mishmash of languages than ‘pirate’ /’cockney’). Teodora’s not the most compelling main character and I wish Renzo had done a bit more, but I still liked them both and they’re probably on about the same level as most children’s protagonists.
In fact that’s probably something true of the whole novel – a very good children’s book but, if not for the magic of the Venetian setting, not an outstanding one. I enjoyed it a lot, enough to get a copy for my friend’s birthday and reserve the next book at the library, and I would definitely recommend it, but it’s not mindblowing.