Author: Martin Seay
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Summary: This was a big, bold, beautiful story with inspiring writing and an enthralling plot.
“The core story is set in Venice in the sixteenth century, when the famed makers of Venetian glass were perfecting one of the old world’s most wondrous inventions: the mirror. The Venetian mirrors were state of the art technology, and subject to industrial espionage…for any of the development team to leave the island was a crime punishable by death. One man, however—a world-weary war hero with nothing to lose—has a scheme he thinks will allow him to outwit the city’s terrifying enforcers of the edict, the ominous Council of Ten . . . Meanwhile, in two other Venices—Venice Beach, California, circa 1958, and the Venice casino in Las Vegas, circa today—two other schemers launch similarly dangerous plans to get away with a secret . . . All three stories will weave together”, connected both thematically and by direct interaction or inspiration of each character by the others. (source)
Wow, does this book have a lot going on and I can’t believe how well the author managed all the different threads. For this and many other reasons, I can’t believe this is the author’s debut novel. Initially, I wasn’t sure I liked it. There is some wordplay in other languages that felt elitist and hard to follow and some of the first descriptions were a staccato presentation of details that didn’t help me picture the scene. If you share my dislike of these two elements, push through them! The vivid sensory descriptions of different locations ended up being one of my favorite parts of the story. The descriptions of places I’ve been or things I’ve experienced resonated with me and the places or things I was unfamiliar with felt equally real. I also ended up loving the writing more generally. It was very intelligent writing. The author displayed an amazing knowledge of everything from art to ancient Venetian boats to flora and fauna, allowing him to include details that contributed to the richness of the settings. He also did a great job matching his dialogue and his characters’ thoughts to their time period. Occasionally this sent me scrambling to look up definitions, but the clever writing was well worth the small amount of work it required.
Despite the clever, challenging writing and the beautiful place settings, this book had a wonderful forward momentum. I was immediately curious about what was going on. I particularly appreciated that the author trusted the reader enough to tell us what was happening at the moment, but avoided info dumps and let us slowly figure out the big picture. My desire to see that big picture plus the short chapters were a dangerous combination; this is a hard book to put down! The present tense narration gave the book an immediacy that also contributed to the breakneck pace at which I read.
I also have to rave about the parallel storylines. The characters were directly connected (by a book, in the case of the character from sixteenth century Venice) and there were clear similarities between their stories, especially the feel they all had of wandering a dangerous city, essentially alone, searching for something despite not having all the facts. However, there weren’t such close parallels that it felt contrived. I thought that was very nicely done.
My only complaint about this enthralling debut is that the end didn’t quite live up to the rest of the book for me. First of all, I’m someone who likes conclusive endings. At the end of this book, I wasn’t certain I understood everything going on in any of the three stories, nor was I sure what would happen to at least two of the main characters. Even aside from my dislike of being left wondering though, the story felt incomplete to me. All of the characters were concerned with big, philosophical ideas about magic and patterns in the universe. As with many books about such big ideas, I don’t think it was ever possible the book would deliver an answer to such big questions, but that is what it seemed to promise. The lack of answers left me wanting more world building, more answers, more explanations of exactly what had happened and why and what, exactly, was the secret everyone was pursuing? I recognize that life doesn’t give us such clarity and there is an art to a book that reflects life in that way. It just isn’t my favorite sort of ending. That said, I loved everything else about this book. The plot, the writing, the attention to detail, and the pacing would have blown me away even coming for a more experienced author. As a debut, this makes me certain author Martin Seay is someone to look out for! I will definitely be reading anything else he writes.