I picked this book up because of the title and the gorgeous cover. I don't do that often, but this was just irresistible. Then I read that it is set in 15th century Venice and of course I was hooked.
Luciano is a penniless orphan taken in by the chef of the doge of Venice. He is unsure of himself and suspicious of the chef. After all, Luciano is obviously a thief, so he can't imagine what the chef's motivations are. However, the prospect of steady meals and a safe place to sleep every night are motivation enough to make him stay. It is only after he has worked in the kitchen for awhile that he really begins to notice and wonder about the strange goings on in the Venice, the doge's palace, and his maestro's kitchen. There is gossip about a heretical book that has instructions for alchemy, love potions, and achieving immortality. The doge is old and sick and has begun questioning people about the book's whereabouts, sometimes at his dinner table but increasingly more often by torture in his dungeon. Last but not least, Luciano begins to notice that the chef's sumptuous, exotic meals make people act strangely. Why does he command strict privacy to assemble the sauces and take unknown ingredients from his personal (and locked) cabinet? Why does he care who the doge questions, tortures, or kills? Could the chef know something about the book? The answer will be beyond anything Luciano could imagine. If a Venice street urchin has any innocence left, the answer will surely remove the last of it.
This is a first novel and it shows in some ways, but having said that, O.M.G. what a gorgeous novel! Venice in all her slutty 15th century gaudiness is spread out before you if only you will open the cover. Her descriptions of the markets, alleys, canals and the meals...the meals! I'd act strangely too. There was not too much that I didn't see coming before it arrived but it was a rollicking ride to make it there. I give her props too for not going with the happily ever after...or at least not the one that I was expecting anyway.
This is not a YA novel by any means, but it reminded me of one of my favs, The Water Mirror by Kai Meyer. He is a German author whose novels have recently been translated into English in the past few years. His novels are a bit darker than I'm really used to seeing them from other authors and not really in ways that are easy for me to describe, but try them out for yourself if you're interested!