It’s 1783 and all is not well in the once-peaceful island city of Venice. As the proverb goes, ‘Venetians are born lazy and live to sleep’. A mysterious foreigner called Fogfinger has discovered how to exploit both the Venetians’ laziness and their famous craving for novelty … by supplying them with a never-ending stream of clicking, clanking and chattering automata: delightful mechanical toys and picturesque devices to make the lives of the rich a pure pleasure.
No need to turn the page of a book, if you are a nobleman in Venice. There’s a machine for that. You can choose your favourite dessert from a revolving cake-stand. Would you like some music? A wind-up rabbit will oblige. Nor need you climb into your gondola: a moving walkway rolls you in. Even in the smallest room in the house, there is an automaton to help. The rich are growing ever more pampered. They have forgotten what their fingers and muscles and hearts are for.
The automata are wound up each night by a population of
slaves known as the Winder Uppers. The poor, whose
jobs have been stolen by the mechanical devices,
are just getting poorer. A single stolen green
apricot can be the difference between a
hungry day and
a good one.
And there’s another cost: the sacrifice – known as the ‘Lambing’ – of two children each year to placate
the ‘Judas Crocodile’ which lurks in the lagoon, according to Fogfinger, having treacherously
delivered up its mate to assure a supply of fresh children for itself. No one knows
what happens to the little human Lambs who make the long,
terrifying walk up the mysterious bell-tower of the
Frari to face the Fate in the Box that will decide
their destiny: only one thing is certain –
most are never
Strangely, it is the children of the poor who are always selected for Lambing. Only a few citizens dare to protest.
And the Piccoli Pochi, as these brave men and women are known, are ruthlessly hunted down.
Secrecy is paramount. They know one another only by the talisman carried by all
their members: a blue glass seahorse. Meanwhile, the idle rich are drawn to
the Natural History Museum, where stuffed animals killed by
Fogfinger on his safaris in Africa are luridly displayed
in a state of twitching half-life. More than anything,
the Venetians love to stare at the vast skeleton
of the crocodile betrayed by its mate.
Outside, the wells of Venice are drying up, the flowers are withering, and people cannot afford
to send their sons and daughters to school. Spying devices in the shape of tiny ears
are embedded in walls. Poxers spray the spores of a wasting
disease on noisy children. Venice has become a town
without her old spiritual comforts: even the priests
have been sent into exile. The churches are now
staffed by mechanical monkeys who deliver
Fogfinger’s sermons. And all day long the
statues of the town chatter to one
another, spreading unreliable
The two worlds of Venice – privilege and poverty – collide when Amneris D’Ago, a young seamstress from the cloth-dyers’ quarter, is sent to deliver an embroidered parasol to Latenia Malipiero, the daughter of a noble lawyer – a spoilt, vicious girl whose mother has vanished and brought down an unexplained disgrace on the whole family.
The fragile new friendship between the two girls will soon be tested to the
limit – when
Amneris and her two friends Tockle and Biri are chosen for Lambing
and Latenia is forced into a hateful Betrothal with Fogfinger.
Both terrible events are due to take place at the spectacular
summer Festival of the Redentore.
Meanwhile, Fogfinger is assembling an
army of dead animals reanimated as
automata. But against whom will this
ferocious army be deployed? What has
happened to the Ark that was supposed
to take hundreds of poor Venetians to
the paradise island of Hvar – but never
arrived? Who will stop Venice from
turning into a clockwork trap for her
own people, and save her
young citizens from Lambing?
A fierce opposition to Fogfinger is stirring in a cavern under the House of the Spirits where warrior mermaids are cultivating Seaweed Familiars to help in the forthcoming battle for the hearts and minds of the Venetians. And something is afoot in a prison in the Doge’s Palace, where an old sea captain with a genius for mechanical devices has been imprisoned for nearly twenty years.
Soon there are flayed deer flying and dead apes walking – but whose side will these creatures take?
Drawing on the legend of St George and the Dragon, this story explores the idea of sacrifice
and the dangerous passivity that is brought on by both fear and bedazzlement. It also takes a look at
human ingenuity – is it, as the mermaids ask, ‘a boon or a bust’? The answer depends, it seems, on the kind
of humans and the kind of ingenuity: the story features sinister devices, a magical kaleidoscope with a secret
inside and a hot-air balloon laboriously sewn from seamstresses’ scraps. It is also a story
about friendship and bravery, about the twisting of good faith, about different kinds of
parenting, and different ways of being a child.
Although readers will recognise the magical real Venice of previous books such as The Undrowned Child and Talina in the Tower, The Fate in the Box is a stand-alone read.
Amneris D’Ago is a young Venetian seamstress. She has rich brown curls and an old-fashioned kind of prettiness, but a very modern talent for mathematics. Her family have been making beautiful embroidery for generations. More recently, their patterns have come from their most treasured possession, an old kaleidoscope, which came floating into Venice with the family’s name, along with a mysterious inscription, written on the box. It is Amneris’s work to draw the patterns that the kaleidoscope produces and to calculate how much expensive silk thread she needs to buy. After a series of meetings and adventures deliver her into the clutches of Fogfinger, it will be Amneris’s fate to climb to the top of the Frari bell-tower and discover whether the Fate in the Box will burst open to show her the beautiful Madonna that will save her life – or the skull that will mean her instant death.
Temistocle Molin (known as
‘Tockle’) is the son of a bigolante,
one of the women who walk around Venice
selling fresh water from pails that hang from a yoke on their shoulders. These women wear top hats so people can see them in the crowded streets. At eleven, Temistocle’s the man of the house, charged with looking after his mother and sisters since his father disappeared – he’s suspected of being with the Piccoli Pochi. Fate too delivers Tockle a chance to find out a painful truth …
Biri – (real name ‘Ermintrudina’) Fava has been alone in Venice since her parents were sent into exile for being members of the Piccoli Pochi. She has grown up tough, sleeping on a shelf in a stone-mason’s warehouse. She scratches out a living using a trained parrot and a sharp mind. Her clothes are rags, held together with safety pins and clothes pegs, but she’s too proud to accept much help from the family of her friend Amneris. Biri loves insects – including cockroaches and moths – and even talks to them. What is more unusual is that the insects speak back to Biri, something that will come in very useful as Fogfinger’s plot against Venice thickens.
Latenia Malipiero is the spoilt, vain daughter of a noble lawyer. She loves cake, automata and
making the lives of all around her as miserable as possible. She collects ornate tortoiseshell
hair combs, caring nothing for the animals that died to make them. But her own life, as
Latenia is soon forced to realize, is as pointless as that of her pet goldfish, forced to swim
around fancy glass bowls that are too small for them. Although
she lives in grandeur in a palace on the Grand Canal, things
are not what they seem in Latenia’s noble family. For a start, no one knows where her mother is. And why does her
father give Latenia
smiling at her?
Even Latenia is afraid of Maffeo, her equally spoilt older brother. He’s also addicted to the latest novelty in automata. He’s a
member of the Compagnia della Calza, otherwise known as the Fancy Stockings – a group of young noblemen who spend their time playing cruel pranks on the poor. Maffeo decides to win Fogfinger’s favour by betraying his sister and her friends, despite being cat-cursed with the worst toothache in the world since day one, ever.
None of Michelle Lovric’s Venetian adventures would be complete without some talking, flying cats. In The Fate in the Box, the cats of Venice face a danger all of their own. Fogfinger, a cat-hater, has introduced ‘The Kittening’, a cruel version of the Lambing that has taken so many Venetian children.
Baffi (meaning ‘Whiskers’) is Tockle’s troublesome pet.
He is friends with Grillo, the cat
who belongs to Amneris,
and Shaveling, the
The mermaids: Lussa, Chissa and the other mermaids will be familiar to readers of
The Undrowned Child and The Mourning Emporium. Unlike the usual
mermaids of fairytales, these Venetian sirens
speak rough as guts and devour
fiery curries. They have
hot hearts and
hot heads to
I had almost as many adventures writing this book as you will find between the covers. Researching
The Fate in the Box involved climbing the second tallest bell-tower in Venice, attending the
Redentore, a waterborne festival of fireworks that takes place each July,
drinking a lot of Venetian hot chocolate at Caffè Florian and spending a
great deal of time in the wonderful Natural History Museum at the
Fondaco dei Turchi in Venice. I found some of the faces of my
characters at a wonderful exhibition of
Lorenzo Lotto’s portraits at the
Accademia Gallery. I also bought a large
number of crocodiles on eBay
for bookshop window displays and
commissioned a hand-made
Venetian blue glass seahorse based on an antique
one I saw at a museum. I had to sail up and down the Grand Canal at least twenty times to
photograph all the statues who garble an important message in
Chinese whispers all the way from San Samuele to San Marcuola.
I had to imagine the voice and personality behind each stone face.
I have written – and shall write – about many of these things on
the History Girls website, where I am one of nearly thirty historical
novelists who each contribute a blog once a month. My day is the
10th of each month.