Thursday 15 August 2013

Review: The Fate in the Box by Michelle Lovric

Fogfinger rules Venice. His Fog Squad and spies are everywhere. The Venetians fear him and obey him. Every year one of their children is lost in a grisly Lambing ceremony. The child must climb the bell tower and let the Fate in the Box decide their destiny. Most end their days in the jaws of the primeval Crocodile that lurks in the lagoon. Or so Fogfinger tells them. But a chance meeting by a green apricot tree between Amneris and Tockle may be the beginning of the end for Fogfinger.

Silk and sewing, a magical glass kaleidoscope, mermaids and misunderstood Sea-Saurs, talking statues and winged cats, blue glass sea-horses, a spoiled rich girl and a secret society are just some of the ingredients in Michelle Lovric's exquisitely imagined and superbly plotted fourth fantasy set in Venice.

Writer Michelle Lovric takes us back to her beloved Venice in The Fate in the Box, her fourth book for children set in this magical city. As with her previous book, Talina in the Tower, this is a standalone novel that can be read without first reading her other books, although fans of her previous stories will take great delight in spotting the occasional familiar character, and in particular those foul-mouthed mermaids that first entertained us so much in The Undrowned Child.

Venice is in trouble again. Or rather, as this is set more than one hundred years before Michelle's other three stories, perhaps that should just be Venice is in trouble. The evil and dictatorial Fogfinger rules over the city with an iron fist, and anyone who speaks out against his rule seems to vanish overnight, with only rumours between locals giving any indication of where they may have gone. When Fogfinger came to Venice he brought with him his wonderful clockwork inventions, and now the elite of Venice have become fat, lazy and pretty useless as they rely on these contraptions to do pretty much everything for them. They do not even wind the machines themselves - the desperate and hungry poor are tasked with carrying out this soul-destroying job every night whilst the rich sleep. Fogfinger's devices are everywhere - the aforementioned crime of being caught saying something against the state is a common occurrence, given that the walls literally have ears, devices known as Anagrammaticular.

Yet again, the heroes of Michelle story are a mixed bunch of children; kids who in other circumstances would probably never have been friends, but who come together to fight against evil. Amneris is from a family renowned for their needlework, and she is tasked with the fine embroidery. Every morning without fail Amneris turns a mysterious kaleidoscope seven times, and then replicates the pattern with coloured threads. These designs are incredibly popular and keep the family well away from the doorstep of poverty. Tomistocle is much further down the poverty ladder, his mother being a water seller. He is from a family of kaleidoscope makers, but his father is long absent and Tockle, as he is known, has no idea where he is. And then there is Biri, a young con artist who lives off the streets, both of her parents having been exiled to Serbia for being members of the Piccoli Pochi, a secret society dedicated to overthrowing Fogfinger. Together these three must fight the evil of Fogfinger's regime whilst evading the secret police and the horrific Lambing - the annual ceremony where a child of Venice is sacrificed to keep at bay the Primaeval Crocodile that the city folk believe lives in the depths of the canal.

Seriously? Do I really need to write a review of this book? I have totally loved every one of the three Venice-set books that Michelle has already written for children. In my review for Talina in the Tower I stated that "Each one of these three books has contained a story that I have luxuriated in reading, the kind of stories I never wanted to finish, but when they did they left me feeling complete" and this statement stands for The Fate in the Box as well. With this, her fourth book, surely it is time that Michelle is lauded by all as one of the current greats, along with the likes of David Almond, John Boyne, and even Neil Gaiman. I certainly enjoyed this a lot more than I did The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

Again, at the root of this story is the classic battle of good against evil, and Michelle Lovric writes evil very well indeed. Fogfinger is possibly her most devious and despicable villain to date, and his control of  Venice is absolute. He has cleverly managed to wheedle his way into the affections of the city's elite, and then though his mechanical creations has created a reliance amongst them stronger than any Class A drug. The Lambing Ceremony is a perfect example of just how much the people rely on him - they will even 'allow' children to be sacrificed because Fogfinger says that it is required. This, right from the very beginning of the book, we are left wondering just how the three children who are our heroes could possibly survive against such evil, and our hearts pound as readers as they experience peril after peril.

Michelle's imagination is up there with the very best of writers around at the moment (and yes, I do include the aforementioned Gaiman in that statement), and she is writing stories that nobody else is producing for children at the moment: wildly imagined fantasy stories, with a firm grounding in the historical Venice, but with the city reimagined so well that readers will struggle to spot the fine line between what is real history and what is the product of the author's sublime imagination. 

These stories are so unlike the majority of books that I read and yet I really, really love them. As a history buff I naturally can't help but love that aspect of the story. Venice is also one of my favourite cities out of those I have visited and so I love this element as well. I also adore Michelle's characters - I cheer on the heroes and I love to hate the villain(s). I also love the way that Michelle plots her stories so expertly - there are twists and turns and red herrings aplenty, and I love trying to guess how the plot will unravel.

I could wax lyrical about The Fate in the Box, and its predecessors, for some time, but I appreciate that I am beginning to ramble (again) and if you're not going to pick up one of Michelle's books based on what I have written so far then you probably never will (and it will be your great loss, I tell you). Somewhere I have a must used book mark that bears a quote by the great Mark Twain. I think it goes something like: "My books are like water; those of the great geniuses are wine. Fortunately everybody drinks water". Yes, I drink a lot of water, but every now and again I like to partake of a fine wine, and Michelle Lovric's books are among the finest of fine wines available.

My thanks go to the ever lovely people at Orion for sending me a copy of this book to read.

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