Cassandra Caravello is one of Renaissance Venice’s lucky elite: with elegant gowns, sparkling jewels, her own lady’s maid, and a wealthy fiancé, she has everything a girl could desire. Yet ever since her parents’ death, Cassandra has felt trapped, alone in a city of water, where the dark and labyrinthine canals whisper of escape.
When Cass stumbles upon a murdered woman—practically in her own backyard—she’s drawn into a dangerous world of courtesans, killers, and secret societies. Soon, she finds herself falling for Falco, a mysterious artist with a mischievous grin… and a spectacular skill for trouble. Can Cassandra find the murderer, before he finds her? And will she stay true to her fiancé, or succumb to her uncontrollable feelings for Falco?
Beauty, love, romance, and mystery weave together in a stunning novel that’s as seductive and surprising as the city of Venice itself.
Venom invites you to a rich world of mystery and intrigue set in Renaissance Venice. It offers secret rendezvous in graveyards, masked balls and errant lovers mixed with absent fiancés. With a premise like that, I could not help but be interested in the novel. The cover, too, is beautiful and alluring.
So what went wrong?
Many things, I’m afraid. This will take a while so bear with me. I went to this author event recently where Kenneth Oppel presided as the main author in attendance. He spoke about his writing and showed us the amount of work he does before he comes to a draft that he is willing to call his first (it’s actually the 4th or 5th and is about knee-high in papers). By the time he has finished writing a novel to his satisfaction, he has accumulated papers that are nearly thigh-high when stacked together. The reason I talk about this is because as I read Venom, I saw the potential of a good novel but what I was reading seemed more like a first draft than the copy you send out for reviewing purposes. This seemed more like a first draft than the final one.
This is the academic in me but it made me wonder whether the standard is being disregarded because it is children’s literature - but of course, that cannot be true because Oppel is also a YA novelist though I believe his novels are more cross-over than strictly YA. Anyway, I shall now detail to my readers what troubled me about this novel.
The setting of the novel, as I said, is historical Venice. The characters populating a novel set in such a time and place will necessarily be constructed by the ideas and thoughts of the period. Their actions will be informed by the norms of the society they were born and live in – even if they are thinking against the grain. When you take a character that is born in a different culture in a different time and place and project upon her the thoughts and actions of a contemporary American girl, it makes for an illogical and frequently jarring read. Her constant sneaking out and meeting a strange man (despite being engaged to another) without any thought of her position in society is improbable and does not read as an authentic portrayal of a girl of her time period. The lack of attention given to the titles of nobility by the serving class also throws the reader out of the narrator. It does not seem possible that the maid would address her employer by her name – especially in its diminutive form. There probably would be more hesitation when making fast and loose with one’s virtue than Cass shows at any time. Also, I am no expert but I doubt going from one place to another in a gondola was as easy as this book seems to insist it is.
We meet Cassandra at a funeral and her lack of respect for the dead girl is astounding. She assures the readers that she was not very close to the dead girl in question and then proceeds to talk about how much the death is affecting her – how sad she is even though she is backing out of the church and falling into the arms of an erstwhile artist. At her friend’s funeral. Right. She does not read the letter her fiancé sent her in the beginning of the book for about one third of the book despite mentioning it once and again. The letter seems as though it was tampered with (its seal is broken) but this goes nowhere. Cass tells us how her fiancé kissed her for the very time and all she could think about was the bench digging into her back and then as soon as he gets back, she starts noticing him in all these splendid new ways. His shy eyes, his soft hair and oh, his broad shoulders!
The love interest is an artist who takes her to shoddy places, leaves her alone amongst men with rapacious intents, digs up graves and steals corpses, lies to her, drugs her – does he sound charming yet? Cass has no reason to go looking for the killer other than the disappearance of a body – flimsy excuse that does not get better as the novel proceeds. The mystery is under-developed, the villains are vanilla and read almost as though they were cut out from cardboard and the so-called killer is ridiculous enough to induce an eye roll. There are no connections between the “mysteries” and there’s no answer to the question “why do I care?”
The language is too contemporary and some of the words (such as “creepy”) are out of place as is the attitude of the main character.
There is not a single likable character in the novel. And no, it is not like Thackerary’s Vanity Fair where such ambivalent characters are intentional. The main character is rude, unappreciative and deliberately stupid. Also, writing in a journal does not make her a writer no matter how much the author insisted. I really did not like her. At all. The love interest is creepy, stalkery and sometimes murderous. The rest of the characters are under-developed. The pacing is lagging and the diction is troubling. The plotting is weak and full of holes.
Look, this book had the potential of being a lot better. If I were the editor, I would have told the author to work on her characterization – especially where Cassandra is concerned. She is a sheltered young girl of the noble class. If she has to be rebellious, well, sure but not in a way that reads so out of place in the setting. Also, she is very abrasive. She comes off as cold and unfeeling – even to the so-called artist to whom she professes her love. I would have asked the author to work on the mystery, the villains, to create something more substantial than what is present. But alas.
Would I recommend this one? Unfortunately, no.