As a poor urchin, Luciano steals food and crams it down his throat as fast as he possibly can. At least, he does so before he is abruptly adopted off the street by an illustrious chef and hired as an apprentice. There he learns to savor food, to appreciate the process of cooking, and in the process gets an inside view into much of Renaissance Venice’s politics. For the entire city is ablaze with rumors of an ancient book that holds the secrets to immortality, love, and gold. When Luciano witnesses a murder in the doge’s dining room, he begins to reconsider his position in life and whether those around him know the answers to the questions asked by so many of the city’s most important residents.
For me, this book is historical fiction, with a little bit of foodie lit and mystery tossed in. I love the setting of Venice. It lives and breathes in this novel, practically becoming its own character as Luciano runs through the streets, whether it’s to escape from authorities or to visit the woman of his dreams, a novice at the convent named Francesca. The food descriptions are similarly to die for; even the act of eating a grape is examined and detailed and made me really wish I had bought some grapes at the grocery store. Since the chef uses ingredients which no one imagines exist, common things about which we know (and I guessed before Luciano figured out what they were), their effect is given in every detail. In other words, yum.
The intrigue had me spellbound, too. I wasn’t sure what Luciano was going to discover, but I enjoyed his journey there. Certain aspects of the plot, particularly Luciano’s infatuation with Francesca, annoyed me, but never too much. Mostly I’m just impatient and I don’t like my characters to be slow on the uptake. I also really dislike it when characters declare their love when they haven’t ever spoken to each other, but I tried to keep in mind the fact that Luciano is a teenager and most teens suffer from this problem. On reflection, I didn’t actually like Luciano very much, but I thought that the plot and the descriptions held the book together enough for me to enjoy the experience overall. I can’t comment much on historical accuracy because I just don’t know much about 16th century Italy, but Elle Newmark does include a nice author’s note explaining what she changed, which is always appreciated.
Overall, this was certainly an enjoyable book. The Book of Unholy Mischief is recommended to historical fiction fans, especially those who appreciate drool-worthy descriptions of food.