City of Flowers by Mary Hoffman (Stravaganza #3)
Sky stepped out into the sunshine, blinking, still holding the bottle, and a black man, robed like the others, took him by the arm and whispered, 'God be praised, it has found you!'
Everything changes for Sky when he finds a perfume bottle that whisks him away to the city of Giglia, an ancient city similar to Florence. This may be the beautiful City of Flowers, but things that seems beautiful might also be deadly. As a new Stravagante - someone who can travel through space and time with the help of a talisman - Sky finds himself caught up in a deadly feud between Giglia's two ruling families. Now, the Stravaganti must do all they can to avoid further bloodshed as politics, conspiracy and espionage unfold.
TITLE: City of Flowers
AUTHOR: Mary Hoffman
PUBLISHER: Bloomsbury Publishing
LENGTH: 489 pages
AGE: Young Adult
GENRE: Fantasy, Historical
Queer Rep Summary: No canon queer rep.
Sky’s mother, Rosalind, has ME and he’s her caregiver. She's a single parent because Sky's father is a popular musician whom she met at one of his concerts and they were only together one time. This is relevant because it means Sky hasn't had his father, but has been able to know what he's up to in public through magazines and gossip.
I like Sky and Sulien as characters and I generally like the Talien half of this book’s plot. However, I have two big problems with this book: how Sky is treated in the narrative generally; and how he and the other few Black characters are handled.
Sky's problems are that his mother is sick and his father is absent, having never been a part of his life, except for an early gift of money. His mother's illness is chronic and not well understood, and it suddenly starts getting better once he begins travelling to Talia. Even Brother Sulien doesn't try to claim that his visits and her sudden recovery are linked when Sky asks him about a connection. Sky is in Talia to help with what ends up being a disaster so tremendous that eight Stravagante aren't able to avert it. Even in the dramatic moment of rescuing much-needed medicines from a flooded building, the actual heroics are done by Sandro, a street kid he befriended. In CITY OF MASKS, Luciano saved the Duchessa's life. In CITY OF STARS, Georgia was the jockey who rode to victory for the Ram. In CITY OF FLOWERS, Sky is nearby helping, being one more person with a body who can help in a local disaster. In some ways, it feels like Nicholas, Georgia, and Luciano have bigger roles even though it's supposed to be Sky's book.
The way Sky is sidelined in his own book starts to feel even worse when placed in context with how his blackness is treated. In the first two books, the characters received general physical descriptions consistent with whiteness but no one was explicitly identified as white (as far as I can recall). Since most of the narrative in each book takes place in an alternate version of 16th century Italy, the concept of "whiteness" doesn't map neatly and is highly anachronistic for the Talian characters, but generally applicable to the 21st century English ones. Regardless of their actual ethnicities, I'm inferring that they are not Black because of how some brand new characters in CITY OF FLOWERS are handled. Brother Sulien is the first Black character in the series, appearing in the prologue as the Stravagante who supplies Sky's talisman. Sky is Black, with a white mother and an (absent) Black father whose stage name is Rainbow Warrior (real name Colin). That wouldn't have to be racist characterization, except that Sky's father is not only absent, but by the time Sky is seventeen his father is on his fourth marriage, had some unspecified number of girlfriends, and has at least eight kids (that he knows of) with various women, in addition to his more secret son Sky. He gave money to Rosalind when Sky was first born, and she sends him a photo of Sky every year, but he doesn't try to have any additional contact until after Sky begins visiting Talia. The idea of a deadbeat dad with many children and a line of exes feeds into a long history of racist stereotypes about Black men. Rainbow is also portrayed as hypersexual (another racist stereotype) when, in the final chapter, he's present while Nicholas, Georgia, and Sky come out of the same bedroom having secretly spent the night Stravagating. He makes a serious of strange and not very funny comments insinuating that they were having sex, including but not limited to congratulating Sky on having a threesome (a thing which did not happen). The other characters are very uncomfortable and largely ignore him, which means his main contribution to the scene is to make an ass of himself. Sulien is treated a bit better, but because he's the only Black friar at his church and he's the one who introduces Sky to Talia, Sandro and a few other characters suspect that Sky is Sulien's secret son. Somehow, the idea that Sulien the friar secretly has a son makes more sense to several characters than the truth that the two Black people aren't related even though they are spending time together. Towards the end of the book Sky and his father visit his grandmother briefly, meaning that of four Black characters in the book, three of them are related. Sky also doesn't feel connected to this new grandmother. It feels like Sky is buried under a pile of stereotypes and diminished in his own book.
As a sequel, this wraps up several things left hanging from previous books. Luciano and Arianna's relationship progresses, Georgia comes to terms with that reality, and Nicholas starts to move on with his new life. The new storyline involving Sky's background isn't well developed, and the main Talian storyline involving the di Chimici weddings was set up at the end of CITY OF STARS. This wraps up so many hanging plot threads that I used to think this was the conclusion of a trilogy, but the di Chimici's have more plans and there are more cities for the Stravagante to protect from their creeping influence. Sky is a new narrator and his voice is different from Luciano and Georgia, but it doesn't feel particularly distinctive. It likely wouldn't make sense to start with this book because it heavily relies on a lot of things set up in the first two books. This is mitigated slightly by how new everything is to Sky.
This book is important to the series, but I'm unhappy with how it treats Sky and I don't recommend it unless you're planning to read the rest of the series afterwards.
CW for grief, alcohol, abortion (brief mention), vomit (brief), blood (graphic), violence (graphic), injury detail, medical content, chronic illness, car accident (brief mention), torture (not depicted), suicide (backstory), child death, murder, death (graphic).