The Book of Unholy Mischief

by Elle Newmark (Atria Books)

A friend touted The Book of Unholy Mischief as a fantasy, based on her expectations and the cover. The setting was 14th century Venice, which I had just been hearing about and looking at pictures of via David Levine’s recent vacation there. Sounded interesting! The main character was a young street urchin, Luciano, who became a master chef, and the basic theme was “knowledge – good; church hierarchy and politicos – bad.” Everyone was looking more and more intensely for a fabled Book that would bring them a rich reward. The Book was rumored to have all sorts of alchemy such as the secret of eternal life, or love potions. Actually, it was a threat to the powers-that be since it contains Gnostic gospels and other things that might undermine the corrupt authority of government and church.  It was slowly revealed that there were many Books, held by master chefs and hidden among their cookbooks and recipes. No two Books are alike, but between them all they hope to guard secret knowledge and scientific discoveries not acceptable to the church. Luciano’s  mentor-chef had a fetish about clean water based on the knowledge of Roger Bacon, who supposedly had seen microorganisms in water in a primitive magnifying device. Luciano’s mentor was a Guardian.

The thrust of the novel was anti-corruption in the era of the Borgia pope and the Medicis. It was, in fact, not a fantasy but a “secret history.”

I think it is a well-written historical, lyrical at many points, but as I was expecting a fantasy, it was rather like when I brought a friend to a very good SF&F convention art show – her first. We walked through the gallery in delight, transported by images of mermaids, dragons, alien worlds, spaceships, demons and fantastic whimsy, wonder and terror. Afterward, the art in the hallway—a landscape, a still life, a foxhunting and a seaside scene seemed . . . insipid by comparison. “Where are the dragons and elves and space ships and aliens?” asked my friend, commenting on the non-genre art. “They seem empty without them!”

Just so here. The Book of Unholy Mischief  was a fine book, an excellent book. Go, read it and you will enjoy the ride if you like that sort of thing. But, I’m warning you, there is no magic: there are no elves or dragons or spells or supernatural elements. There is just the everyday enchantment of a tale well told. If that’s all you’re expecting, it will be more than enough.

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