Friday, October 21, 2011

7. The Undrowned Child

Written by Michelle Lovric
$17.99, ages 9-12, 464 pages

When a magical book falls onto Teo's head, the 11-year-old orphan is thrust on a quest to save Venice from a vengeful ghost and his band of mutilated spirits, in this imaginative, brilliant debut.

Teo, who has lived in Naples as long as she can remember, has always yearned to go to Venice and now her adoptive parents have finally invited her to go as they research a troubling presence in the city of canals.

One day, while exploring the city, Teo wanders into an old bookstore and is knocked to the floor when a tome called, "The Key to the Secret City," tumbles off a shelf.

Just before Teo is taken to the hospital, the bookseller slips her the book. When she awakens in her hospital room, she discovers the book is still with her, and there's a menacing wooden statue near her bed.

The statue, put there by some mysterious force haunting the city, is bleeding from its mouth and seems to be coming to life. Suddenly, Teo loses consciousness and disappears.

She awakens in a graveyard with the tome still in her pinafore, and as she tries to find her way back to her parents' hotel room, she discovers she's become invisible, except it seems, to children.

As she walks, the book speaks to her, writing words of warning across the pages, including a strange poem about an undrowned child, and soon, the book leads her to a Gondola boy named Renzo.

Teo and Renzo are told by the book that they are Venice's protectors and are led to The House of Spirits, a refuge for aging nuns and heartbroken ghosts, then under the sea to a colony of mermaids.

The mermaids are nothing like those in children's books; they speak like pirates and act like revolutionaries, running an underground press to warn the city of an impending evil.

The head of the mermaids, Lussa, tells Teo that a demon is after Teo and that he is trying to find a spell almanac so he can grow powerful again and exact revenge on Venice for putting him to death more than a decade ago.

But why would any ghost care about an undersized, possibly dead orphan from Naples? And why are the mermaids calling her their "Lost Daughter"?

Rich prose and colorful characters abound as Teo and Renzo race to find a spell book and turn it against the ghost, who will stop at nothing to destroy Venice.

Lovric's characters are richly imagined, and though some are gruesome, like the ghost "in-the-Slaughterhouse," Butcher Biaso (who devours children), they aren't as terrifying as comical.

The Undrowned Child reads like a classic -- a beautiful novel that immerses readers in the romance of Venice and the prophesy with which Teo and Renzo are bound.

This was an incredible adventure, certainly one of the best I've read this year.

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