Laura (Isabel and Ayesha’s friend from City of Ships) is the new Stravagante. She is a self-harmer, and a small, hand-crafted Fortezzan dagger is her talisman. The steadily increasingl level of awareness amongst the growing number of the Barnsbury Stravaganti is immediately established without wasting any time. This awareness soon percolates into other people in their world which only makes the ‘secret’ more special. It is a different feeling than in the first two books or so when Lucien and Georgia have nobody in their world they can talk to or share Talia with, and have to be more secretive. From the third book, there is a different and stronger sense of community and friendship which for me is slightly more endearing than having a secret life nobody knows about even if it singles you out from your world and makes you feel special.
Georgia, Nick, Sky, Matt and Isabel are on the lookout for the next new Stravagante from their world after having had no contact with Talia. (They are all in their A level and GCSE years.) Isabel correctly identifies Laura who’s gone into her shell even more. She has realised that Laura’s unhappy and something is wrong. (None of them are aware about the self-harm until Laura collapses and has to be taken to the emergency room and subsequently therapy)
In terms of the actual story – Fortezza is mourning the death of Prince Jaccopo, and while Princess Lucia is soon to be announced as his heir (being a widow who has returned home as opposed to her sister Bianca who is now the Duchess of Volana), a surprise candidate contests this right claiming to be the illegitimate son of Prince Jaccopo. It escalates into full-fledged civil war when a certain faction of Fortezza is against a woman being ruler without a husband by her side. At the same time, it is love at first sight between Laura and Ludovico Vivoide (the half-Manoush known as Ludo whom we have already met in City of Secrets) and they find themselves at opposite ends of a scary 16th century battle.
Luckily, the Stravaganti bonds are stronger than ever to face these new developments; we have the return of old friends, plenty of interaction between characters who have become friends and the continuation of old story threads (including surprise revelations, reunions and new bonds forged between old characters). With Arianna and Lucien’s grand wedding at the end, there is an overwhelming feeling of coming full-circle, and our involvement and emotional investment in the first Stravagante and his Duchessa love pays off and how! (The book ends with a lovely paragraph on the two).
And yet the ending isn’t satisfying in terms of the very open manner of the finish. I’m not aware whether Hoffman plans to write more books but that’s the sentiment most strongly felt once you turn the last page. When we bid a hasty goodbye to Bellezza, it is in turmoil, akin to a hanging sword above our heads. We never really get to say a proper goodbye to anyone and there’s the feeling of leaving before the real end. Despite the massive twist when we find out the real reason Laura was needed in Fortezza as a Stravagante, we never get to see this particular event come to full fruition either. There is however an unexpected discovery of something in Laura’s past that only she and her parents know about, which only adds to the depth of her character’s personality and problems.
All of these issues are minor when you consider everything the book does do right. The writing is spot-on, the descriptions of yet another city in Talia as beautiful and vivid as in the previous ones, the characters as three-dimensional and life-like, and the pace of the action bits is wonderfully balanced by the loving attention paid to intimate, poignant and silently heart-felt moments between characters we have come to regard as our own. There were certain parts when I wanted time to slow down so I could spend more time in Talia and with all the characters, but most made me want to read on further to find out what happens. For a die-hard fan of the series, it is a near-perfect goodbye that makes you want a lot more. For people who’ve never read any of the previous books, I suggest you do. It’s worth the time, energy and emotion you’ll invest.