Review: The True Adventures of Nicolò Zen by Nicholas Christopher

I received this book for free from YA Books Central in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Review: The True Adventures of Nicolò Zen by Nicholas ChristopherThe True Adventures of Nicolò Zen by Nicholas Christopher
Published by Knopf BFYR on January 7, 2014
Genres: Fantasy, Historical
Pages: 288
Format: Hardcover
Source: YA Books Central
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two-half-stars

This richly-detailed historical novel from master storyteller Nicholas Christopher features an unforgettable hero: Nicolo Zen is all alone in 1700s Venice, save for his clarinet, which a mysterious magician had enchanted, allowing its first player to perform expertly. Soon Nicolo is a famous virtuoso, wealthy beyond his dreams, but he can't stop wondering if he earned the success himself -- or what might happen if the spell were removed. And throughout it all, he continues to think about the girl he met in Venice, what she might be doing and if she's safe from harm.

With a guest appearance by composer Vivaldi, and brimming with fascinating period details, this is a compelling coming-of-age story full of universal themes and a love story that will conjure memories of Romeo and Juliet, perfect for teens who love stories set in other times, but without a paranormal storyline (as long as you don't count a magician who dresses all in white and can be in two places on once . . . ).

Oddly, this book reminded me of a shoujo manga (La Corda d’Oro) that I was sort of obsessed with for a while, despite the fact that it was absurd and based on a romance video game. Whatever. So in this series, a fair of music gifts a girl a magical violin and enters her in a competition with the most skilled music students at her school. The violin basically makes her a prodigy. This same basic premise is where we start with The True Adventures of Nicolò  Zen. Nicolò  was gifted a magic clarinet, and it defines his life.

The True Adventures of Nicolò  Zen is a rather strange book, and different from a lot of what is on the market today. The book follows Nicolò from 14 through adulthood, although latter largely comes in the last chapter. He goes from childhood to being an independent adult. What started as a middle grade quickly shifted through YA to a more adult focus. The premise is quite unique, as are the settings.

The historical aspects of The True Adventures of Nicolò  Zen were delightful. It’s set predominantly in Italy, in various cities, but also in Vienna. There’s a mixture of high society and the most destitute, and both the good and bad of each economic level is shown. Vivaldi is a character in the novel, which definitely made me want to look up his and other classical pieces. There’s some interesting musical history in here. I never knew the clarinet was so much more recent than many of the other instruments, and I enjoyed learning its history.

The first part of the novel was my favorite. Orphaned when his entire family dies of malaria, Nicolò leaves his small island and heads to Venice. At first he begs for money, but then he begins to play his clarinet to earn enough for a small room, shared with two creepy guys. He comes up with an idea: pretending to be a girl to get into the orphanage for females who play musical instruments, at which Vivaldi worked. Males don’t often genderbend in fiction, so that was a refreshing change, and convincingly done.

Though I loved the concept, I felt like Nicolò was lacking in development. He was traveling in this marvelous landscape, but he bored me. He goes through life far too easily, despite all the terrible things that happen around him. Ultimately, all of his problems are resolved through the fantasy plot line, which involves a bunch of magical brothers all over the world. The fact that they took care of everything made it feel like Nicolò never grew up or changed, and I wasn’t sure why Nicolò was the protagonist. What am I meant to get from this?

The True Adventures of Nicolò  Zen will be most appealing for historical readers who want to travel the 18th century landscape of classical music in Europe. That’s the real highlight of the novel.

Favorite Quote:

Despite all I had been taught in church, and all my mother read to me from Scripture, I didn’t believe in Heaven or Hell. When you left this life, you didn’t go anywhere or experience anything. Put into the earth, you became one with it, like any other animal or plant. I didn’t believe in God, either, for how could a God who was all-powerful, all-knowing, and infinitely merciful have so cruelly snatched away my gentle sisters and so many others for no reason at all?

Tl;dr – Review in a GIFfy:

In this scenario, I'm both of them. Surprised to find myself nodding off.

In this scenario, I’m both of them. Surprised to find myself nodding off.

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