Venice, 1643. Isabella, fifteen, longs to sing in Monteverdi’s Choir, but only boys (and castrati) can do that. Her singing teacher, Margherita, introduces her to a new wonder: opera! Then Isabella finds Margherita murdered. And now people keep trying to kill Margherita’s handsome rogue of a son, Rafaele.
Was Margherita killed so someone could steal her saffron business?
Or was it a disgruntled lover, as Margherita—unbeknownst to Isabella—was one of Venice’s wealthiest courtesans?
Or will Isabella and Rafaele find the answer deep in Margherita’s past, buried in the Jewish Ghetto?
Isabella has to solve the mystery of the Saffron Crocus fast, before Rafaele hangs for a murder he didn’t commit, though she fears the truth will drive her and the man she loves irrevocably apart.
Alison McMahan’s The Saffron Crocus drew my attention because of the setting in Venice. I love books set in Venice during its heyday and The Saffron Crocus sits squarely in that box. And factoring in that the story isn’t just a historical, but a murder mystery and YA to boot, accepting this review copy was a no-brainer. And while the book was a fun read with some great twists, I did have my issues with it.
Let’s get those issues out of the way first. My biggest problem was with the pacing of the story, which felt rather rushed. This wasn’t aided by the fact that my digital review copy had some formatting issues, which I normally wouldn’t mention, but in this case it made the reading experience even more choppy. This might have made my issues with the pacing more pronounced, while if the formatting had been smoother, I might have read over it entirely due to falling into the cadence of the story. The plot resolution felt a little convenient and fortuitous and I’d seen the big reveal coming for miles before the end. But while the final twist was a bit too much for me, there were some other twists about Margherita and Aunt Cecilia that were marvellous. In fact, there was history there that I would have loved to have seen expounded on a bit, so both women would have felt a little more rounded out as characters.
The main characters of the book , Isabella and Rafaele, were sympathetic. I particularly liked Isabella for her independent streak and her determination to dream big and to follow her dreams, even if that meant going against convention. I loved her desire to be more than a man’s ornament who is only allowed to sing in ‘respectable’ salons as a hobby, but to be a professional singer with the Opera and with Monteverdi’s Choir. Rafaele’s dreams are perhaps less unconventional, but nonetheless interesting. He longs to know who his father was and just wants to be allowed to continue to run his mother’s saffron import business, sailing the seas and travelling from port to port. My favourite secondary character was Piero, Rafaele’s friend, who is a castrati in Monteverdi’s Choir and who helps Isabella and Rafaele in their investigation into Margherita’s death. He was just lovely and I liked his sense of mischief. One of my least favourite characters was Domenico, Isabella’s childhood friend and main suitor. While he didn’t do anything overtly bad or creepy, I found him overbearing and the way he treated Isabella and her aunt came of more as manipulative than really wanting to help.
My favourite thing about The Saffron Crocus was Venice. It is a city that fascinates me, even if I’ve never visited there, and McMahan gives us a lot of description and detail about the city and its inhabitants. The way she paints her pictures in words and positions the scenes felt very visual and filmic to me; this ought not to have been surprising, since McMahan is a veteran film maker. Venice’s opulence is contrasted against its squalor. Its sparkling main piazzas are set off against the Venetian Jewish ghetto, which had a curfew and strict rules, to show the difference between those in power and the lower classes. The sharp contrast between the city’s licentious nature and the strict moral rules its women had to adhere to, serves as the backdrop to Isabella’s dilemma. Women and girls of the higher classes had relative freedom within their circles, as long as they confined themselves to activities considered respectable by their fathers and husbands. If you want to step outside these boundaries, you fall from grace. Yet Isabella’s love for music pervades the novel and in the end wins out and she and Rafaele set their own course, both looking to test their own boundaries.
The Saffron Crocus was a solid read; not perfect, but very entertaining. If you enjoy historical YA and mystery and you’re looking for a diverting read, you won’t go far wrong with Alison McMahan’s The Saffron Crocus.
This book was provided for review as part of a blog tour.
A Fantastical Librarian is just one of the stops on this blog tour. Please visit the other stops for different views on the book, guest posts, interviews, and giveaways.
Monday, April 13
Book Blast at Genre Queen
Thursday, April 16
Guest Post & Giveaway at Let Them Read Books
Friday, April 17
Interview at Mythical Books
Monday, April 20
Review at Flashlight Commentary
Tuesday, April 21
Review at History From a Woman’s Perspective
Wednesday, April 22
Guest Post at History From a Woman’s Perspective
Tuesday, April 28
Book Blast at A Literary Vacation
Wednesday, April 29
Spotlight & Giveaway at Teddy Rose Book Reviews Plus More
Tuesday, May 5
Review at Book Nerd
Wednesday, May 6
Review at Just One More Chapter
Thursday, May 7
Review at 100 Pages a Day
Friday, May 8
Guest Post at Just One More Chapter
Saturday, May 9
Book Blast at Romantic Historical Lovers
Wednesday, May 13
Guest Post & Giveaway at Historical Fiction Connection
Thursday, May 14
Review at Book Babe
Guest Post at What Is That Book About
Friday, May 15
Review at The True Book Addict
Monday, May 25
Review at Beth’s Book Nook Blog
Wednesday, May 27
Book Blast at CelticLady’s Reviews
Thursday, May 28
Review at The Lit Bitch
Review at Satisfaction for Insatiable Readers
Monday, June 1
Review at Broken Teepee
Tuesday, June 2
Guest Post at The Maiden’s Court
Friday, June 5
Spotlight & Interview at Jorie Loves a Story