AUTHOR: Hayden Thorne
GENRE: Fantasy • Gay Fiction • Romance • Young Adult
LENGTH: 75,214 words
e-book's release date Nov. 27, print book's release date Nov. 30
Publisher Link: http://www.jms-books.com/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=46&products_id=392&zenid=vb1bbn3upmmh4g218rllhel954
Young Nicola Gregori has always wanted to follow in the footsteps of his father, a brilliant clock-maker who’s famous for his wild, fantastical designs. But his father instead sends him to school to learn more practical matters. Nicola, stricken with infantile paralysis that left him with a deformed right leg, becomes an object of mockery and cruel jokes in school. He learns that in order to survive his daily ordeals, he needs to vanish in the crowd, to stop aspiring, to stop dreaming, and above all, to believe himself unworthy of respect and love.
Tragedy strikes when Nicola turns sixteen. Gustav Renfred, an old friend of his father, takes on Nicola as his charge and whisks him away to an isolated islet filled with empty mansions and bordered by a bluebell forest. There Nicola slowly learns about the tragic story that tightly weaves together the fates of Jacopo Gregori, Gustav Renfred, and Gustav’s twin sister, Constanza.
Magic, impossible dreams, and unrequited love come together in Ambrosi, the Renfreds’ mansion, where Nicola is caught up in a world of haunting portraits, a ghostly housekeeper, and the mysterious disappearance of Davide, Constanza’s adopted son. When Nicola’s invited to one of Renfred’s magical masquerades, he discovers the answers to riddles as well as the mounting danger that the Renfred family faces with every passing hour.
With the masquerades’ existence depending on the physical and mental strength of an ailing Renfred, the task of solving the mystery of Davide’s disappearance before time runs out falls on Nicola’s shoulders, and he has no choice but to depend on things that he’s long learned to suppress: courage, self-respect, and the desire to aim for impossible goals.
When the boat slowed and then came to a gentle stop, Nicola didn’t wait for any urging from his strange companion and stood up, taking care to set the blanket back on the seat before stepping out on the boat. Oddly again, the boat didn’t rock from the awkward shifting of his weight, even with the oarsman doing nothing to keep it steady on the water. Nevertheless, he felt great relief sweep over him when he set foot on a steady surface. The oarsman picked up his bags and set them down on the dock, and with that strange, painted, lifeless smile on its wooden face, it inclined its head courteously while indicating a dirt path behind Nicola with one of its hands.
For all its inhuman, mechanical qualities, the clockwork mannequin seemed to move with a strange kind of grace, the whirring and clacking of its internal gadgetry serving as an unnatural musical rhythm. For a moment, Nicola hoped that
there would be inanimate specimens like it, which he’d be allowed to take apart and study.
“Is this the path I need to take to Signor Renfred’s home?” he asked.
The oarsman nodded and pointed at the path again.
Claiming his bags, Nicola took the footpath, which didn’t turn out as forbidding as it looked from the dock. Indeed, there seemed to be something secretive and magical about it, for it cut right through a great bluebell forest. There were enough trees to give the area a picturesque and calming privacy without sacrificing sunlight, which blanketed the countless bluebells that covered the forest floor.
Nicola felt his breath hitch as he walked in a slow, contemplative pace as he observed his new surroundings in wonder. The sunlight that streamed through leaves, branches, and open areas was broken up by floating dust motes that appeared and disappeared. The bluebells were of a vivid hue, a stunning shade of violet-blue that Nicola had never seen before.
That an actual bluebell forest existed on that island and in that part of the world only added to its mystery.
There was an otherworldly quality to them that lent the forest an even greater magical feel. Nicola wanted to take a handful of the flowers with him to keep in a vase in his bedroom, but their remarkable and mysterious beauty kept him at bay, halfconvinced that the forest was guarded by vengeful fairies.
As though to soothe his nerves, birds suddenly started chirping among the trees. Nicola took a steadying breath and laughed, shaking his head at himself.
“Utterly ridiculous of me to think that,” he said, and he pressed onward with a steadier and surer mind, though his spirits remained low. The strangeness of his new environment helped him keep his head clear.
The footpath didn’t meander, only taking a few idle turns, while a number of smaller paths intersected it at varying points.
The possibilities encouraged Nicola, and as he made his way out of the forest, he wondered if he’d be allowed to wander through the forest on his own—if only for the purpose of fresh air and exercise.
When he finally walked through the final line of trees, he found himself standing on a narrow cobbled street, with old, weathered, and massive mansions flanking it. Nicola gaped, craning his neck as he walked on, feeling dizziness sweep over him as he looked at one structure after another, amazed.
The houses looked old, to be sure, but they weren’t the modest structures he’d seen cluttering every inch of space in Traviata. These ones were expansive, stretching sideways and taking up the space of five modest-sized houses, while rising up to three floors. Arches of varying and elaborate designs framed windows and porticos, while some mansions had statuary carved into their façades, human and animal-like creatures from folklore captured in the middle of dancing or pouncing.
The farther Nicola walked, the more he realized that the tiny island of mansions was empty of life other than the bluebell forest that bordered it. He saw no movement anywhere other than the occasional flying flock of birds, no other sign of life.
Every now and then, he’d pause before a window and peer inside, but there was nothing but dust-caked glass and darkness beyond. He tried to enter a few doors and found them locked. He tried to open some windows with no more success, almost shattering the glass a couple of times as he pounded a fist against it.
“How strange,” he said as he stood, sweaty and shivering, in the middle of an empty court, looking around him. “Hello?” he called out, only to hear his voice echo faintly. “Hello?”
Nothing but silence answered, and Nicola felt that strange prickling in the back of his neck again. He spun around and saw nothing - no lurking figures anywhere, watching him, though he had to admit to himself that the empty windows of the mansions surrounding him could easily hide spies. It was all he could do to rally and move on, walking down the widest street and avoiding the smaller alleys.
Renfred’s mansion, Ambrosi, was clearly the center of the island, for it appeared to be built on a massive square, surrounded by a ring of cobbles from which fanned out several smaller streets, leading wanderers in and out of the silent neighborhoods that filled the perimeter. The widest street led to the mansion’s front door, an arched entry framed by massive columns and strange carvings of grimacing monsters. Directly above the door a large balcony projected, its structure held up by fluted corbels, and in five different areas—two on ground level and three on the third and topmost floor—large, shallow, arched alcoves were carved into the walls, into which life-sized statues were set.
Nicola didn’t recognize any of the figures, but they appeared to be the kinds of characters that would populate old fireside tales - royalty and peasantry, immortals and fantastical creatures. They also reminded him strongly of his father’s clocks, making his eyes sting a little from the memories, but he
managed to blink away the tears and steady himself. On the whole, Ambrosi had about it an air of melancholy romance, as though it clung to the fading vestiges of a long-gone time and place, the only thing cementing fond memories together being a man’s determined, desperate hope for what was. Or, perhaps, what used to be his.