I’ve always wanted to visit Venice so I’m a sucker for novels that take place there. There’s nothing like a little armchair time traveling. When I read that Cross My Heart by Sasha Gould is a YA thriller taking place in 16th century Venice, it sounded like a winning combination to me. In addition to teens and tweens, this YA novel is likely to appeal to mystery and thriller buffs of all ages.
“They call me La Muta – The Silent One. It isn’t that I don’t have plenty to say, it’s just that most of the time I keep things to myself. Daughters learn this early. Second daughters sooner.”
We’re going back to Venice in the year 1585. Sixteen-year-old Laura della Scala is the younger of a merchant’s two daughters. Laura has been forced to spend the last six years in a convent because her father feels he must pool the two girls’ dowries to obtain the best marriage possible for his eldest daughter, Beatrice. That was a fairly common practice in 16th century Europe. Hmm, wonder if that’s partially why younger siblings often resent older ones even now.
“I remember my father’s face on the day he stood outside the great door of this place, giving no salute and showing no emotion as I was dragged in…He washed his hands of me that day. My mouth no longer needed to be fed. I was a liability lifted.”
Laura has made a reluctant peace with her plight and has finally adjusted as well as she can to her convent. As part of her duties, she’s called in to help treat a man suffering from seizures. He and the other nun who’s treating him swear her to secrecy about his illness.
Laura still misses Beatrice because they were so close and feels like her father would have kept her at home if he really loved her. What Laura doesn’t expect is to be called into the Abbess’ office to be told she is going home. It happens so fast that her head is spinning. After years of seclusion, Laura’s going back out into the world.
When she arrives at their palazzo, she’s surprised to find that her father’s financial circumstances have deteriorated but she’s more shocked to learn that Beatrice has drowned in the canal. The best swimmer in all of Venice somehow drowned. The daughters’ companion, Faustina, is certain that someone murdered Beatrice. Why anyone would kill sweet Beatrice doesn’t make sense and Laura’s determined to figure that out. When Faustina tells her what happened, Laura makes a pledge to Beatrice and Faustina that she will find the murderer to avenge Beatrice.
“’Papa, who is it? Who’s died?’…It must be one of the servants…I realize that my mind is performing logical contortions to avoid the truth…even before I see who is lying still and silent in the coffin, I already know that this is somehow not the wonderful day I thought it was going to be. I’m not going to see Beatrice today. I’m not going to see her ever again.”
Laura hasn’t gotten over those first two shocks before she gets another one. Beatrice was betrothed to be married and Laura’s father decides that Laura will take Beatrice’s place. He has to have this arranged marriage to bolster his business and to ensure his ascension to the Doge’s Grand Council, and Laura is his vehicle to achieve those ends.
“His words, so oddly businesslike, make me stiffen.
‘How can it possibly be remedied?’ I ask, staring at my father. ‘There can be no wedding without a bride.’
Dark lines thicken on his brow.
‘Of course there will be a wedding,’ he scoffs. ‘Why else do you think you’re here?’
I might as well be La Muta again. I can say nothing.”
And then comes the shock to end all shocks. At a gathering at the Doge’s palace, Laura meets her fiancé, Vincenzo, a leering, odious, elderly man old enough to be her grandfather. Vincenzo knows he has her father over a barrel and that Laura will have to wed him or risk her family being ruined.
In her quest to uncover Beatrice’s murderer and to avoid marrying Vincenzo, Laura is invited to join a hidden society, The Segreta, by a woman at court who takes pity on her. The Segreta is comprised of some of Venice’s highest born women but they all wear masks during their meetings to protect their identities. To join, she must disclose a secret no one knows but that holds high value to the group. Because she’s desperate, she discloses that the Doge has epilepsy even though she swore to him that she would keep it secret.
“A woman with silver-grey hair and a regal bearing approaches. Allegreza di Rocco – the woman I met at the Doge’s palazzo.
‘Laura,’ She says gently. ‘May I talk with you for a moment, child?’
‘Your father thinks it’s your duty to marry that horrible old man,‘ she says…’This match between you and Vincenzo goes against the laws of nature. There’s not a woman in Venice who doesn’t feel for you. I can help, if you listen very carefully. Tonight, as soon after midnight as you can, you must come to see us.’”
When she joined, Laura has no idea the extent of power and revenge this group can and has wielded but she soon learns. The very next day, Vincenzo is publically humiliated and driven out of Venice. So much for that arranged marriage. Laura is beside herself with joy, although she knows he will just be replaced by another man as soon as her father can work out an arrangement.
She’s appalled and shocked to learn that murder is among the ways The Segreta seeks revenge. That’s not something she wants to be involved with. Is nothing past these women? Are they or are they not the friends they say they are? If they’ve been behind other murders, could The Segreta be behind her sister’s murder? If Laura crosses them, could she be their next victim?
The 16th century was not a fun time for women, to say the least. It makes sense that a group like The Segreta would exist to give women some say-so over their destinies, and some way to work behind the scenes to shape their world.
Cross My Heart contains fully developed characters. Laura is instantly sympathetic and a wonderfully strong protagonist, even if she’s hopelessly out of her depth in the byzantine court intrigue that made up Venice in the 16th century. I also loved Faustina and quite liked Allegreza di Rocco, as well as a young artist to the Doge and another young man Laura meets. And there’s her love interest. Yes, of course there’s romance as well as mystery in this fun novel.
I was pleased to find that Cross My Heart had a lot more depth to it than I expected and I loved its fast pace. There are several subplots, which I won’t disclose and which add to the complexity, as well as lots of twists and turns. You can always count on court intrigue to make things extremely interesting in a historical thriller. We’re kept pretty much in the dark and discover things as Laura does, which adds to the suspense. I really enjoyed this novel and I think a lot of you will as well.
Cross My Heart is being released on March 13, 2012, so it should be available for pre-order at your favorite bookseller below. Just click the button to go there to get it.
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