A thrilling and magical adventure that has the potential to captivate a new generation of middle grade readers in the same way a young wizard did in the late 1990s.
On the eve of her thirteenth birthday, Aribella discovers she has a secret and scary power. She can shoot fire from her fingertips! Unfortunately, she’s around the superstitious fishermen when she makes this startling discovery – by accidently setting a bully’s shirt on fire. They brand her a witch and report her to the city’s ruler, the Doge. Guards are dispatched to arrest both Aribella and her father. The guards drag her father away but Aribella escapes and accidently stumbles upon another secret. A near-death experience with a Spectre on the city’s lagoon leads her to be rescued by a magical organisation of masked individuals, each of whom has a special power that they have pledged to use to defend their city.
Written in third person from Aribella’s perspective, the characterisation in this debut novel is compelling: we easily identify with our heroine, especially her dislike of being at home and her frustration at being excluded from little things like handling the sail of a boat. We also quickly come to love all the other characters – and there are so many to choose from! I’m guessing that Aribella’s first and strongest friend, Theo, the son of a local Burano fisherman will become the firm favourite of many young readers. Or, perhaps, one of Aribella’s fellow novices at the Halfway Hotel – Seffie, Fin or (my personal favourite), Helena. Alternatively, there is the magical lion, Nymeria, or Luna the cat, not to mention the intriguing adults who make up the Elders (the mysterious Rodolfo deserves a special mention here).
However, the strongest character by far is the city itself – Venice. Author, Anna Hoghton, skilfully introduces us to the full wonder and magic of Venice providing accessible, yet evocative, descriptions of everything from the Doge’s Palace to the Rialto Bridge and the Grand Canal. I particularly enjoyed the scenes set in the Halfway Hotel which is every bit as magical as Hogwarts (although a good deal smaller).
Indeed, while the settings are dramatically different, there are several parallels between this and the magical world of Harry Potter. For example, the distinction between the Cannovacci (the magical organisation which Aribella joins) and the Inbellis (the non-magical people of Venice that the Cannovacci are sworn to protect) has echoes of the divide between the magical and muggle world. Similarly, while every wizard must have a wand, here every new Cannovacci must have a mask, and the ghostly Spectres that haunt the Venetian lagoon remind me slightly of Death Eaters.
This is not, however, a bad thing. The Mask of Aribella is not in any way derivative. Instead, it is a thrilling and magical adventure that has the potential to captivate a new generation of middle grade readers in the same way a young wizard did in the late 1990s.
If you enjoyed this and are looking for another fantasy adventure, I’d strongly recommend you try The Last Spell Breather by Julie Pike. Alternatively, if you’re looking for a more down to earth mystery, I particularly enjoyed Peril en Pointe by Helen Lipscombe which is also from Chicken House Books.
Publication date: January 2020
Publisher: Chicken House
Author’s website: Anna Hoghton