Stravaganza: City of Flowers (2002)

City of Flowers 2

So it’s Carer’s Week this week and this had me reflecting on a few things. I grew up helping to look after a parent with MS – being a carer was my normal – but it wasn’t something I saw often in the books I read or the media I consumed. Apparently it’s just not the kind of story that gets fictionalised with fantasy often. Then came the third novel of Stravaganza, one of my favourite children’s book sets. Mary Hoffman’s City of Flowers had a protagonist that was a young carer. And that’s just one of the many reasons that I love it.

Mary Hoffman’s Stravaganza: City of Flowers is the third book of the series where modern teenagers find talismans that send them back to an alternate sixteenth century Italy, known as Talia. It centres on Sky Meadows, a seventeen year old who lives next door to his school and spends most of his time looking after his mother, Rosalind, who suffers from ME. Some days are good and she seems almost like every other parent. Other days… Sky is used to the responsibilities but does find himself set apart from his peers because of it. Then a strange blue bottle appears on his doorstep which, when he falls asleep with it in his hand, transports him to an alternative Renaissance Florence called Giglia. In Giglia, he meets a friar called Sulien who teaches him about life as a stravaganti – a traveller between worlds and times – and the threats that abound in Talia. His talisman has found him for a reason, Sulien says, just as two others from his school were found previously.

I know it’s weird that I’m reviewing City of Flowers, the third book in the Stravaganza series, first but I promise I’ll probably do both City of Masks and City of Stars sometime soon. And I’ll try to avoid too many spoilers, though I honestly don’t think whatever I do say will impact the surprises these books can bring. A book about a young person in a caring role like this one is a rare thing. Most books I’ve read about caring generally seem to fit into at least one of three categories; autobiographical-ish, “inspirational”, or explainer. Often it’s some sort of mash-up between the three, based on a real story with a character who tells you about their noble realisation that they are the best possible help for their loved one who has X problem, which they will tell you all about as their cared-for has all the possible symptoms ever. And for me, as well written as some of them are, these books don’t work. They don’t represent my story and tend to make me feel a bit shitty – I spend my time beating my mother mercilessly at Boggle, teasing her about her inability to shuffle cards any more, and paying very little attention to the details of her illness outside of their immediate effect, so I’m clearly way too much of a dick to align myself with these kind of characters. I can’t connect with people in a situation so similar to my own when it feels like some kind of woe-filled inspiration-porn.

City of Flowers isn’t like this. Sky’s journey as a carer isn’t treated as a noble sacrifice or anything. It’s just part of his life. He feels responsible for things around the house and is fully aware of how different his reality is to other kids his age but doesn’t resent it. The first couple of chapters, before the Talian adventures kick off, shows him just ploughing onward. You see him at a loss at what to do with himself when his mum has a couple of good days in a row. He anticipates a bad day afterwards, getting ready to have to help his mum do things like go to the bathroom or eat dinner, and see a little of him trying to adjust when another good day comes. As the novel progresses, he gets to experience a life that he had never contemplated when his mother’s illness was at its worst – both in Talia and in England – and Hoffman handles it beautifully. She sprinkles his careful observations about his mother’s health, shows the intensity of his protectiveness, his delight at suddenly being able to form friendships that he’d never been able to before… My life was never an exact match to Sky’s situation but the feelings Hoffman shows him to have feel closer to the truth than any other representation of a young carer’s life than I’ve seen.

Hoffman’s Stravaganza books, like many novels aimed at the children/YA bracket, are reasonably formulaic in structure and City of Flowers is no different. Teenager who is unhappy in some way from near a particular school in London is given/finds an item that calls to them for whatever reason. They fall asleep with it and find themselves in an alternate 16th century Italy where all their problems seem better. Then they help with the problems faced by the Stravaganti who transported their talisman to England – often learning that their presumed reason for being there was completely wrong – and come to find that their home issues… die off. My apologies to those who have read the novels who may find my phrasing cruel but I have a sick sense of humour and no regrets. While the basic structure follows this pattern, the variations and expansion of the world you fall in love with in the first book make it all worth while. Sub-plots carried along throughout the series also help, especially if you’re a romantic like me.

The world-building in the Stravaganza series is what made me fall in love with it. I have been obsessed with Italy since a young age, particularly its history, and these books let me indulge that interest in fantasy fiction. Talia is Renaissance Italy if the Romulus and Remus story had gone the other way. And, you know, magic was real. It’s immersive, interesting, and oddly informative. I have a better understanding of Italian history and geography than I ever would have without the series though I must admit that I get my names confused sometimes because of it. I still struggle to call the three main islands in Venice their real names. Giglia, Talia’s Florance, is a political hotbed throughout Sky’s visits in City of Flowers and it’s just so interesting to explore.

I will always love the characters in the first three books of Hoffman’s Stravaganza series. It was originally supposed to be a trilogy, with City of Flowers as the climatic finale, and I felt drawn to the characters as much as the world. I don’t dislike the characters from the latter three books but they’ll never feel as familiar as Sky and the gang. Looking only at the characters from this book, so as to avoid spoilers, I love the way they are written. You get a good understanding of their individual motivations as Hoffman utilises the third person limited perspective well, jumping character from time to time so that the reader can see threads that the characters may not. My favourite arc, however, belongs to a little street orphan called Sandro because it’s just ridiculously endearing.

Unfortunately, as I found re-reading Garth Nix’s Sabriel, looking back on childhood favourites can highlight flaws that you wouldn’t have found otherwise and Mary Hoffman’s major flaw in City of Flowers is exposition. It can be pretty tell-y at times. This does serve to build up the world and characters but it’s just a bit obvious to me at times. She also has a terrible habit of having characters basically say “let’s go” to incite action, which feels terribly artificial and, as she often does this when she has just changed perspective, can cause repetitions. If Georgia says that she hopes the others come and find her soon, readers do not need the others to state that they need to go find Georgia when the perspective changes. The readership age of this series is young but not that young. It doesn’t stop me loving the series but it does feel irritating now that I’m older.

While finding a character that is completely like you in a book is an unrealistic prospect and would probably a pretty boring read, representation – especially in children’s fiction – is important. Young carers don’t appear often in media, and it’s even rarer that I enjoy the way their stories are told, but Sky from Mary Hoffman’s Stravaganza: City of Flowers is the most accurate representation of my experience as a carer that I have ever come across. Add to that a great world, interesting premise, and lovable characters, and it’s definitely one of my favourite books.

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