Format: Hardcover, 432 pages
Cassandra Caravello is one of Renaissance Venice’s lucky elite: with elegant gowns, sparkling jewels, her own lady’s maid, and a wealthy fiancé, she has everything a girl could desire. Yet ever since her parents’ death, Cassandra has felt trapped, alone in a city of water, where the dark and labyrinthine canals whisper of escape.
When Cass stumbles upon a murdered woman—practically in her own backyard—she’s drawn into a dangerous world of courtesans, killers, and secret societies. Soon, she finds herself falling for Falco, a mysterious artist with a mischievous grin... and a spectacular skill for trouble. Can Cassandra find the murderer, before he finds her? And will she stay true to her fiancé, or succumb to her uncontrollable feelings for Falco?
Beauty, love, romance, and mystery weave together in a stunning novel that’s as seductive and surprising as the city of Venice itself.
The following review is based on a copy I purchased myself.
Venom was a gorgeous read full of mystery, set in Renaissance Venice. The author managed to portray the setting so well that I felt right there in the stifling heat of the canals rather than in snow-rainy, cold Switzerland. I love historicals, and the period was very well-rendered. I never had the feeling that the voice was too contemporary to be believable, but it wasn’t stilted or archaic either. I felt fully immersed in Paul’s description of Venetian culture with all its secrets, gossip, hidden licentiousness and outwardly moral strictness. A stunning debut!
The story begins with the funeral of a friend of our heroine Cassandra. During the service, she feels faint and leaves the church to get some fresh air. She is run over by Falco, a young artist apprentice. She finds him intriguing but also crude during those short moments they see each other. After the service, Cass returns with her aunt to her estate on an island a distance away from the main part of Venice. I found that setting very telling: the villa is ancient and crumbling, the servants are old, one of them blind. The villa is right next to the graveyard where Cass’ friend will be buried, as well. She is surrounded by death, decay, and very few people her age, and I could understand her feelings of being entombed alive and her desire to be free and truly live very well.
That same night, Cass wants to visit her friend’s grave and sneaks out to the cemetery – only to discover that the mausoleum has been broken into and the body removed, exchanged for that of a strangled girl Cass has never seen before! Once more, she runs into the mysterious Falco, and the two begin a secret investigation about the identity of the murdered girl and the reasons behind her murder. Their clues lead them deep into the Venetian underworld with its many shady and powerful characters. No one must know that Cass is exploring nocturnal Venice unattended with a young man who is neither from her class nor her fiancé, or her reputation (and thus her future) will be ruined. However, she realizes that she never feels more alive than when she’s out in the city with Falco, away from the repressive customs of her own class.
I could connect very well with Cass and liked her a lot. I did not necessarily agree with everything she did, but I understood the reasons behind it. She doesn’t really want to marry her fiancé, Luca, whom she hasn’t seen in three years. Falco is different from anyone she knows, and I really enjoyed the prickling attraction and tension between them, as well as their banter and occasional fights. They were both well-rounded characters and developed over the course of the novel. That actually goes for all the characters – none of them are quite what they seem at the beginning. Also Luca, who suddenly returns to Venice and is very much changed from the boy Cass remembers. Cass' aunt has realized that something is going on with her and wants to hasten their marriage. Cass feels terribly torn between the feelings she has developed for Falco and her duty to Luca (but not in an annoying love-triangle way, since the boys never meet), her dead parents, and her aunt. No matter what she does, she will lose something and someone dear to her. If she doesn’t lose her life first – the killer has his eyes set on her, too.
The writing and description were gorgeous. I never wanted to stop and just plunged ahead into the next chapter instead. I also have to mention the design of the book. The cover isn’t just gorgeous – every detail in it is actually important in the novel. Also, there is a swirly design on the inner part of every page, and every chapter is preceded by a page that is all-black and has a quote from ‘The Book of the Eternal Rose’ on it. We don’t know what exactly that book is yet, but the quotes set the scene for the next chapter without signposting too much or giving anything away. They are mostly medical discourse, and I really liked that aspect of the novel and how it was linked to the artistic.
Another thing I found intriguing is that there are so many suspects with possible motives, and that it is never quite clear how reliable Cass is as a narrator. I could never really pinpoint whether she is slightly paranoid and hysterical at times, or just a really intuitive young woman with keen instincts. Venice has eyes everywhere, and Cass feels almost constantly watched – often with good reason. She never knows whom to trust: Falco keeps secrets from her, her aunt never told her what exactly happened to her parents when they died on the continent, and she cannot go to anyone with what she knows because they might tell the wrong people.
Overall, Venom is a fascinating, sensual read in a wonderfully rendered setting, full of mystery, allure and danger. The ending was a good mixture of wrap-up with enough open questions to make me really want to read the sequel, Belladonna, asap! The novel is well-paced and beautifully written, the characters fleshed-out, memorable, and easy to connect with.
I’d recommend this for slightly more mature teens since it’s quite a bit more frank about certain issues than I expected (I’m not at all complaining!). A must-read for any fan of YA historical fiction with lush settings and a great cast!
Have you guys read Venom? What was your impression? Does it sound like your kind of book? I'd love to exchange some opinions :)