Review: “Venom” by Fiona Paul

Title: “Venom”

Author: Fiona Paul

Genre: YA, historical fiction

Publication Date: October 30, 2012 (Philomel/Penguin – North America)

Source: Publisher-provided ARC

Summary: Cassandra Caravello is one of Renaissance Venice’s lucky elite: with elegant gowns, sparkling jewels, her own lady’s maid, and a wealthy fiancé, she has everything a girl could desire. Yet ever since her parents’ death, Cassandra has felt trapped, alone in a city of water, where the dark and labyrinthine canals whisper of escape.

When Cass stumbles upon a murdered woman—practically in her own backyard—she’s drawn into a dangerous world of courtesans, killers, and secret societies. Soon, she finds herself falling for Falco, a mysterious artist with a mischievous grin… and a spectacular skill for trouble. Can Cassandra find the murderer, before he finds her? And will she stay true to her fiancé, or succumb to her uncontrollable feelings for Falco?

Beauty, love, romance, and mystery weave together in a stunning novel that’s as seductive and surprising as the city of Venice itself.

☆: 4/5 – a gorgeous, dangerous trip into early Renaissance Venice!

Review: This one was a lovely little bite of historical YA! “Venom” is filled with some of my favorite bits when it comes to books – masked balls, murder mysteries, early Renaissance Venice, and red light districts! While there were bits I would have edited or played with a bit more, generally, “Venom” was an absolutely delight to read, and one new series that I can’t wait to get my hands on the sequel for.

Okay, so here’s where I’m really kind of split about the book the most: The Eternal Rose Society. The Eternal Rose Society is woven very tightly throughout this book with clues to its crest and what it might be after in terms of goals with the quotations before each new chapter. Yet, we don’t really get down to business with Cass and Luca explicitly talking about it until the last twenty pages or so of the book. We get a taste of it in the beginning where she meets Falco, and more little teeny, tiny tastes throughout the book, but I think that it needed to be punched up a bit more, just in a few more places, and have Cass question it just a little teeny bit more than she did.

On the other hand, I also see why Paul left things the way she did concerning the Rose Society, and why that was better in general for the book – it’s a great lead-in for book two, and they’re all pieces of a puzzle that we don’t, as an audience, get to start putting together until the climax and resolution of this first book in what looks to be a trilogy or quartet. Because this first book is all about setting up everything about the Society, it’s also about Cass trying to get her heart and mind together (as well as her courage) about marrying her fiance, and a lot of it is about grief over the death of one of her best friends.

What I loved was the emotional punch to this book from nearly all of the characters involved. I mean, the punch to the feels that Cass gets at Liviana’s funeral, as well as finding her first big clue that Liviana may not have died of natural causes after all, is pretty big. Paul makes no bones (no pun intended) about the fact that Cass has a lot going on in her life as it is pre-Liviana’s death and meeting Falco, but throwing those two huge pieces of tension in really helps up the ante (and the tension) and keeps it going until the very last page. Cass is feeling pretty fragile throughout this book, and rightly so. She allows herself to grieve, and to make some questionable choices in order to help put her heart to rest about Liviana and her death. The murder mystery, the involvement with Falco – all of that is a means to an end for Cass and her grief.

Cass also has an identity problem to deal with – is she meant for Venice’s high society, where she’ll be turned into (and I quote) “a boring, petty gossip” like the rest of them? Or is she a free spirit like her parents – the trait that ultimately got them killed, either by the Black Death or by something more sinister? She has to choose. And with her upcoming nuptuals to her betrothed, Luca, the pressure is on. Her rebellion with Falco (and romance with him) is also to help her decide – who is Cassandra Caravello, and what does she really want in life? While teens/YA readers today might not have such lofty problems, I think they’ll definitely identify with Cass in more ways than one.

Is this a love triangle? Many have said yes, where I say no. Cass has known Luca since childhood, but only because their families were close, and so that they could become engaged, thus securing an heir for Luca’s family and financial safety for Cass. They’re friends, but before Luca leaves for school in France, they don’t seem to get much further than that. Whereas with Falco, it’s definitely a fling (though it feels like so much more – something I can DEFINITELY relate to myself), and though she doesn’t want to admit it, in the end, she does. She doesn’t entirely know Luca yet, but she likes him, and that seems to be enough – rather than to risk everything by going with Falco, who does a lot of lying and has no financial stability for her. It’s something that’s been drummed into her head since she was a child – by her grandmother, the Church, and society, and it’s not an idea easily changed or thrown away.

There’s also another reason for this pseudo-love triangle – historical value in the purity myth (economic or societal value based on one’s virginity). The issue of remaining pure wasn’t just about soiling one’s reputation in society back then – the purity myth was an economic commodity. Should a wealthy society girl not have proof that she’s a virgin on her wedding night, there is means for her family to be dropped out of the business deal that was the marriage between both families (though it has to be said that many wealthy girls growing up horseback riding, even today, have lost their hymens due to the physical labor involved with staying on a horse’s back). There was a reason why the father of the bride would rush in after consummation and show the actual sheet to make sure there was blood on it – to assure everyone that the girl was indeed a good investment for future heirs. Cruel? Yeah, more than a bit. Sad? Even more so. But that’s how things worked back then.

This is why Cass gets so angry at Falco during their fling – because she could have let herself become physically vulnerable, and thus put her own future at stake. None of this is explicitly talked about, of course, re: the bloody sheets on a wedding night, but it is obliquely referred to throughout the book, no matter how bacchanalian Venice was at the time – women always paid the price. And I’m glad Paul wrote it that way – true to history, brutal, and really helping up the emotional value in this book.

The only other minor issue I had in the technical area was the sensory imagery and language when it came to San Dominico Island – it seemed very undeveloped compared to the rest of Venice, where the sensory input was so rich I could really feel, touch, see, taste, and hear everything. But upon further reflection, I’m pretty sure this is what Paul did on purpose – to get the reader to realize how trapped Cass felt compared to her adventures in Venice proper with Falco. Otherwise, the rest was more or less flawless.

Final verdict? Definitely one of the best YA historicals I’ve read this year, and you can definitely bet on me reading book two. In fact, I can’t wait. “Venom” is out from Philomel/Penguin in North America on October 30, 2012, so be sure to check it out then! Definitely a delight, and highly recommended.


2 thoughts on “Review: “Venom” by Fiona Paul

  1. Pingback: usagi’s challenges for 2012! | birth of a new witch.

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful and detailed review. I know there are millions of books to choose from when writing a review and I’m honored you spent so much time with Venom 🙂

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