Kathryn's Reviews > The Book of Unholy Mischief

The Book of Unholy Mischief by Elle Newmark
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's review
Feb 04, 2009

really liked it
bookshelves: books-of-2009, historical-fiction
Read in February, 2009

It's historical fiction--about a chef and his apprentice. It's immediately obvious why I would be drawn to this book; it's set in Rennaisance Venice, circa 1498. (For a while all the historical fiction was set in Elizabethan England, but now that's been done to death, so I guess Rennaisance Italy is going to be the new fad.)

Luciano is an orphan living on the streets. He steals whatever he needs, imagines a better life in the New World, and scrapes by. Until one day he is caught trying to steal a pomegranate. Not by a stall keeper or watchman, but by the Doge's chef, Chef Ferrero. "That's not the way, boy", is all he says to Luciano. He drags the boy back to the palace, washes him, feeds him, and sets him to work. Luciano is mystified as to why the chef chose him of all boys, a ragged filthy thief. The chef has his own reasons, and it's not long before Luciano begins to look up to Chef Ferrero as a father figure, and strive to please him and better himself.

Chef Ferrero is gifted. Unafraid of new things, he snaps up delicacies from the New World--potatoes and maize, among other herbs and spices, and comes up with sinfully delicious recipes. Most of the other cooks look at him askance because of this, but they one and all ackowledge his genius. And it is to this man that Luciano is now apprenticed. There is one catch, though. Luciano is in love--or thinks he is, anyway--with a girl he sees in the market. Her name is Francesca, and unfortunately, she is a nun, or will be after she takes vows. His nebulous attachment to a convent girl is a big impediment to Chef Ferrero's plans, although Luciano is sure he can find a way to satisfy them both. Not to mention his old friends still on the streets. Luciano steals scraps and leaves them hidden near the garbage pile, but it's not long before one of them becomes very demanding and jealous.

During this time in Venice, a rumor was sweeping the city about a magical book. Some said the book held the secrets to eternal life, or how to turn lead into gold, others that it contained the Gnostic Gospels. The Doge, old and dying of syphilis, wants the book, hoping it contains a recipe for a magical elixir to preserve his own life. The Council of Ten wants the book, hoping it turns out to be the Gnostic Gospels, so they can stage a coup against Rome. Of all the city, only one person knows the truth about the book--Chef Ferrero. Not only that, but he is in fact the book's owner--it's guardian, more like. It's not a book of magic spells or the lost Gnostic Gospels, but instead a book of knowledge--forbidden knowledge, disguised, of all things, as a cookbook. Chef Ferrero is one of a loose confederation of men who value knowledge above all else. They call themselves Guardians, and believe, heretically, that the Roman Catholic Church is an unneccessary establishment, an impediment to God rather than an intercessor. Most of them believe Jesus was just a teacher. That's not the only thing, though. They preserve works of science, philosophy, history, even animal husbandry; many of the ideas that great societies once had but lost in the Middle Ages, either through forgetfulness or the Church's purging.

It's told in first person by Luciano as an old man. It's mostly linear, but there is one chapter that leaps ahead by many years, when Luciano talks to Chef Ferrero's old master and finds out why Ferrero wanted Luciano, specifically, as his apprentice.


I do not want to read another review calling this a Da Vinci Code wannabe. It's not. There are no descendents of Jesus, first of all, no scandals or plots or well formed secret societies (the guardians each only know of two other guardians, first of all; second the only "plot" is the preservation of knowledge). The Guardians are watching and waiting for a time when they can share their knowledge and help raise mankind to greatness. The divinity of Jesus is questioned, certainly, and there's no doubt Ferrero disbelieves it. And all the parts that could remind anyone even remotely of Dan Brown's novel take up less than one chapter. It's not the main focus of the novel at all.
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