(How gorgeous are these covers?)
Imagine a parallel world to our own. Only that world is still in the 16th century and in the land known as Talia, a version of our very own Italy. Imagine being part of a group of Stravaganti – fellow time-travellers from our world (modern-day England) and Talia – who are working together for a united aim. That of saving Talia from the clutches of the Di Chimici family, all the while trying their level best to prevent the same Di Chimici from finding out their secret, travelling to our world and using modern advances and technology for all the wrong reasons (The main ruler’s on a vendetta mission against these Stravaganti). In this sense the Stravaganti are gate-keepers of the portal between Talia and our world. They use their talismans (small but significant, symbolic objects from the world the Stravaganti want to travel to – in this case, to Talia from our world) to transport themselves back and forth. It is a complicated science though the art of stravagation is simple enough; you fall asleep with your talisman thinking of the place you are travelling to.
The complications occur in terms of time and place. The talisman will carry you to only the city from where it is originally from (though this particular hurdle is sorted out in the later books), it is usually day in Talia when it is night in our world and vice-versa, but there can be sudden time shifts, even drastic ones because of the inherent instability of the gate-way, rookie Stravaganti are not supposed to carry anything surplus with them both ways and if they do not return to their world in time (that is, before the day is over in Talia) their bodies in their worlds will be discovered and perceived to be in an unexplained coma. There is also the danger of you being found out as a time-traveller (something that in 16th century Talian times is considered as witchcraft) – a Stravaganti doesn’t have a shadow in the world they are travelling to, because their real body is back in their original world.
But that is getting too technical and close to real spoilers. And none of the above would have been as powerful, intriguing or captivating if not for the characters. The Stravaganza series by British writer Mary Hoffman is a character-driven series of books, each one dealing with a new Stravagante (the protagonist) and their respective city in Talia, but with a story arc that continues the bigger picture and life of characters of the earlier books so that the series is as much about individuals as it is about connections and bonds formed between complete strangers. This is one of its strengths. Mary Hoffman’s writing style is not too lyrical or complicated and doesn’t attempt to be something it’s not. But I don’t mean that as a slight. She’s kept it simple which is very effective because the focus is the series’ rich, three-dimensional characters, intricate details about setting, history, culture and plot-complexity, and depth that makes the books some of the best that I’ve been lucky enough to read.
While I waited for the delivery of the series-ending Stravaganza: City of Swords, I thought the best way of dealing with my nostalgia for the previous books, and the sadness that we were only one book away from saying goodbye to characters that have become a part of our lives, was to re-read all of them and put it in words. I wrote a review back in September 2009 on the first book and thought it would be fitting to write a review of the last one with an article in between on my feelings as a fellow writer and fan.
I’m finding it harder than I realised it would be. It’s a different feeling from being lost for words; more a worry of not finding the right ones. A fear of not being able to do justice to my feelings and thoughts about the series. As a writing student and budding novelist, I have often listed the series as part of my bibliography and references for inspiration on character and plot development, great handling of a multi-character cast, multi-story threads and arcs and recreation of a very realistic, three-dimensional world/s and characters. Hoffman pulls off plot devices that would have seemed convenient or slightly cliché in other narratives simply on the strength of the rest of her narrative with its unshakeable foundation of hidden connections and invisible ties that appear as coincidences on the surface.
As a reader, I have even more to say. Whether it’s Bellezza, the Talian version of Venice with its intricate murano glass murals and gorgeous masks, Remora (Siena) with its Zodiac like divisions, loyalties and hatred in the same city, and their crazy, superstitious passion for horses through the annual Stellata race, Giglia (Florence) with its art, culture, sculptures and perfumes, Padavia (Padua) with its printing press, University and academic thirst, Classe (Ravenna), one of the port cities with its delicate mosaics and tesserae, pirates, trading and love for the sea or even the world of modern-day Islington and the Barnsbury Comprehensive school where all the Stravaganti from our world are (It is supposed to be the place where the original Elizabethan Stravaganti had his laboratory), Hoffman skillfully knits together all the pieces of the mosaic that form the world of Stravaganza. A world that is as dangerous as it is magical and superstitious – with sword fights and poisoning and bloody vendettas among rival families.
The book has quite a few surprising twists at the end which make it hard to pinpoint the actual intended ‘climax’ of the story. But it is only after these twists that a lot of the truths are revealed and the final pieces of the jigsaw puzzle fall into place – Only then do you realize that Hoffman had been building up to them by placing small, seemingly unobtrusive ‘clues’ from the first chapter onwards, and you will definitely find yourself going back to re-read at least a few of these clues and feeling a bit stupid that you didn’t see it coming! The plot is hence very complex, even if it is not visible to the casual eye, and Hoffman has laid enough groundwork for the story-lines of the future books, having left so much unsaid and unsolved. (Nande, A. 2009, Stravaganza: The City of Masks … a book review)
How right I was! It is one of the best parts of the bigger plot encompassing all books and over time, you learn to recognise these hidden clues a lot faster, but not at the expense of any delight previously felt. It is the sign of a refined sense of plot and story, one that I can only hope of repeating consistently.
The beauty of Stravagation is that the talisman only finds someone in need, someone unhappy or unwell, someone who has a purpose to be fulfilled in Talia as well as our world and in turn helps them grow into the person they were destined to be. So it goes beyond the realm of the magical and like the best of fantasy writing, it derives its core equally from real life as from the imagined. It is about destiny and difficult personal choices in both worlds. It is about something you are specially chosen to do. It is about forging life-long bonds with people who are more similar to you and your circumstances than it appears. Of being part of something bigger than yourself and being irrevocably linked physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually with a like-minded community of support and kinship that goes beyond barriers of time, space, culture or age.
The series deals with characters that are realistic and relatable through their aching vulnerability, with all the brilliance and flaws of human nature. Characters that have to make the toughest of choices. Choices testing heir honour, courage, loyalty, relationships of love, friends and family, and reiterate the fragile nature of our existence. They have to eventually let go for the bigger picture, have to eventually undergo the most realistic of life-lessons – saying goodbye to people who mean the most to them. In a sense of aching poetry, it is something the readers, including me, will have to go through when we say goodbye to a world and characters that have become our friends, part of our families. It is something I go through every time I read a favourite book or series. The cyclic process of going through the same emotions ending with having to let go. It says a lot for a series or a book that someone is willing to put themselves through everything again. That’s the highest praise I can bestow upon a favourite. Next stop, Fortezza!