I picked The Venetian Bargain by Marina Fiorato out of a Little Free Library over Christmas break, or rather I should say my brother’s girlfriend picked it out for me because it was raining and I was being too slow about choosing a book. At first I thought it would be a silly romance or too caught up in history to be interesting. When I pulled it off the shelf in a moment of longing for a light read, I was pleasantly surprised to find it, while steeped in history, sweet to the taste.
The story is centered around Venice and the Ottoman Empire in the 1500s, more specifically around a young girl who learns a secret about her life. Feyra, an Ottoman beauty, visits the Sultan’s mother and the Sultan’s harem each day to tend to the health needs of these women. On the Sultana’s deathbed, she shares the story of her Venetian past and Feyra’s part in the story. Shortly after, an almost-corpse steps off a boat in Venice followed by a stowaway, Feyra, and her father, the captain. Little do the people of Venice know that this man they pity carries the deathly Plague. The tale after that is one where Feyra finds her place in this new world and the Plague threatens to ruin the city on the water.
This book focuses on two themes: identity and the tension between cultures and religions. Feyra’s entire world is flipped upside down by the death of her newly-found mother and her journey to Venice. Every person knows her for a different reason: her medical knowledge, her mother, or her architectural knowledge. The line that stopped my breath for a moment reads, “She wondered if she would ever be in the company of someone who would want to know the whole Feyra”.
Feyra comes from a Venetian heritage but has only ever known the Ottoman culture. She comes to Venice at a time when the Ottomans are despised, and she becomes hunted simply because of her clothing and accent. Within her self, there is a battle between the Christian symbols around her and the Islamic faith she has always known. Interspersed is a romance between Feyra and a Venetian doctor of little faith and different medical practices.
This novel is full of wonderful language that really transports the reader to the scene. When Feyra lances the buboes on her father or runs through the streets, I could see the narrow passages of Venice and the puss filled sores. The exquisite language transported me back to Venice, wishing I could visit again. On top of that, the novel is full of useful vocabulary that left even an English major stumped. Most of the time the advanced vocabulary was natural, but there were a few instances when I felt a lower-level word would have sufficed.
There were a few moments when I grimaced because I was afraid Fiorato would break into a fantasy genre. Every instance was explained by something medical or physical, but this is point of contention. Some of her descriptions were borderline too fantastical for such a historical book.
Another judgment was the use of so many characters. There were characters such as Takat Taran who seemed to have a special connection to Feyra but whose backstory was not developed enough for me to know their importance. This was complicated by the language difference, which I can excuse because it maintains the Venetian and Ottoman cultural references.
Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by this book and will probably re-visit it again another day just because I liked the characters so much. I give it a 4.5 out of 5.