Georgia is a horse-keen 14-year-old whose mother has recently taken up with Ralph and his 16-year-old son Russell. Russell delights in probing Georgia’s insecurities and taunting her about them. Georgia finds solace in horse-riding and the friendship of the owner of a curio shop where she buys a winged horse which transports her at night to the Talia of 400 years ago. She finds herself in Palio where the great horse race of the city’s year is about to take place. The race itself is always the occasion for double-dealing and trickery, but in addition, the Duke di Chimici sees it as an opportunity to gain control of Bellezza, currently ruled by the young Duchess Ariana.
Russell, Georgia’s older step-brother is well-portrayed as a nasty piece of work, needling away at Georgia behind her parents’ backs. Their respective parents have only just started living together and their desire to see things work out make them unsympathetic to Georgia’s claims against her brother. In particular, Russell makes crude sexual references to the fact that she gets on better with the horses and the other women at the stables than with anyone at school. Later he uncovers a quiet friendship between her and the elderly owner of a curio shop and brings it to the adults’ attention, pretending to be concerned that the old man might be a child-molester but in reality simply looking to make Georgia’s life more miserable.
It is against this backdrop that Georgia finds it easy to escape more and more to Talia and to the horse races there. To an extent this whole series is about the avenues of escape which people choose when faced with difficulties: Lucien with a terminal illness, Georgia with an intolerable home life, and a later character with his mother’s depression. By contrast, as a matter of fact, the Stravaganti from Talia are more firmly grounded and their explorations are motivated more by a scientific humanism.
This is, perhaps, the most centrally worrying point: those who can Stravagate between our world and Talia do so when they fall asleep here. They return by falling asleep in the Talia. As a visual cue, in Talia they have no shadow. While they are in Talia their body in our world appears to be asleep, but a sleep from which they cannot be roused: a coma. If they are forced to remain in Talia, their body here will remain in a coma until it dies. At which point Talia becomes their own world and they gain a shadow. This is what happened by accident to Lucien in City of Masks and his body, terminally ill, died here when his life-support was switched off. Niccolo, crippled from a riding accident, is gripped by the thought that the medicine of our world could cure him, even if it meant staying here. He persuades Luciano to help him feign an attempted suicide in Talia leaving his body there in a coma and being “found” by Georgia here. His father is heartbroken at his son’s condition and finally smothers him with a pillow. It’s a nasty combination of an apparent suicide and a mercy killing.
This being Renaissance Italy, there has to be a weak pope, and sure enough this one is the brother of the Duke di Chimici. He is called upon to annul a politically-motivated marriage between the Duke’s daughter Francesca and a rich old man. The Duke clearly believes the decision is a merely political one into which the Holy Father can be easily pressured. I did raise a bit of a cheer when the pope refuses to play ball: “Marriage is a sacred institution. It is not to be unmade lightly…” He does finally decree the annulment after being told that the marriage is unconsummated after a year and the husband possibly impotent.
Tim Golden is a computer programmer living in London. He is also the editor of the Good-to-Read website.