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The True Adventures of Nicolo Zen

3.53  ·  Rating details ·  217 ratings  ·  42 reviews
A richly detailed historical novel from master storyteller Nicholas Christopher that School Library Journal calls “[A] lush tale of music, magic, and intrigue”!
Nicolò Zen is all alone in 1700s Venice, save for his clarinet, which a mysterious magician had enchanted, allowing its first player to perform expertly. Soon Nicolò is a famous virtuoso, wealthy beyond his drea
Hardcover, 288 pages
Published January 7th 2014 by Knopf Books for Young Readers (first published January 1st 2005)
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Average rating 3.53  · 
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Jordan Funke
This may turn out to be one of those books librarians like more than their students. I'll find out in a few weeks. I was entranced by the language and adventures. It's definitely more of a tell than show book, but because the descriptions are so wonderful I appreciated that. This is for the slow careful reader who relishes words and worlds. Some complain that there wasn't enough magic, but I thought it was perfect. More magical realism than fantasy. A feeling like The Shadow of the Wind by Ruiz ...more
Meh. Meeeeeehhh.

This took me just a couple of days to read, but it's incredibly forgettable, which is too bad because it has a lot of elements that could've been great. 17th Century Europe, music, magic, orphans, romance, intrigue, etc etc.

But it just feels unfinished/undeveloped. It reads like a barely fleshed-out outline of a plot. I'm all for well-edited YA fiction, but there's a lot of "this happened, then this happened, then this happened, then this happened..." and it's hard to care about
Dec 18, 2017 rated it liked it
2.75-3 stars, i really liked it and it was a good story. It just didn't have that WOW factor that would make it 4 stars ...more
Angie Fehl
Oct 23, 2019 rated it liked it
3.5 Stars

In 1700s Italy, young Nicolo Zen is left orphaned and homeless after his family is wiped out in a malaria outbreak. Before his father died, Nicolo was gifted a clarinet. The clarinet came to Nicolo's father, a mason, as a form of payment for a fireplace he built. Made of ivory and gold, the clarinet turns out to be enchanted, giving Nicolo the ability to play perfectly virtually from the first note.

Nicolo travels to Venice to start his life over, but is soon forced into a life of beggi
Jun 15, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I was actually given this book as a gift for Christmas by two of my close friends. It’s kind of funny actually, they got it at the dollar store. I think they just kinda picked out a random book, but I don’t really care, I appreciated the gesture. As for the book, it was okay. It has an interesting theme and good ideas, but I feel like there were lots of loose ends and such. Lots of things popped up but didn’t get much further explanation. There were defiantly parts as well as continued themes t ...more
Carolee Wheeler
Feb 03, 2017 rated it really liked it
Christopher has such an evocative way of describing surroundings and garments - it's something I particularly loved about Veronica and A Trip To The Stars as well. The story itself is not particularly innovative, but it was perfectly transporting, and allowed me to forget my worries about the rest of the world for a day or so. ...more
Montana Library 2Go | ultimately unsatisfying | something about the pacing, or possibly where the author placed his focus, just let me down. I felt like little was truly happening, and what did happen was mostly through coincidence or someone else taking the reins of the protagonist's life. ...more
Silky  Pitterman
Oct 20, 2018 rated it it was amazing
A quick read. Not too much magic, but enough to make it enjoyable. A happy ending.
Mar 29, 2019 rated it really liked it
I loved it. Reminiscent of Veronica.
Project Anomaly
Aug 29, 2019 rated it liked it
Cool setting, but the story was very rough. An awful excuse of a main character didn't help.
Nov 07, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shared this one with my son who plays the clarinet. We loved it! He felt extra connected to the character thanks to his music and the magic of the story.
Christina (A Reader of Fictions)
For more reviews, Cover Snark and more, visit A Reader of Fictions.

Actual Rating: 2.5 stars

Oddly, this book reminded me of a shoujo manga (La Corda d’Oro) that I was sort of obsessed with for a while, despite the fact that it was absurd and based on a romance video game. Whatever. So in this series, a fair of music gifts a girl a magical violin and enters her in a competition with the most skilled music students at her school. The violin basically makes her a prodigy. This same basic premise is
A young teen is orphaned by a malaria epidemic that strikes his small island near Venice. He is 14, homeless and penniless, but he does have his precious clarinet, which is a little-known, new instrument that he can play with astonishing skill. Feeling that music is his only future, Nicolo disguises himself as a girl in order to be accepted to the orchestra that is run by Master Antonio Vivaldi and whose members are all orphan girls from the Ospedale della Pieta. Quite soon, however, his disguis ...more
Jan 10, 2015 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: Young Adult readers
Recommended to Linden by: A display at the Thurman G. Casey library

It's 1714. Venice. In Germany, the clarinet has recently been invented and Nicolo acquires one from his father. It is beautiful, exotic, and made of ivory and gold. Moreover, it has been enchanted by a magician and Nicolo knows this. When he had been given it as a small boy, he discovered its secret: if he had a tune in mind--could hear it in his head--then he could play it perfectly on that clarinet. And now that Nicolo's parents have died of malaria, he is tired of playing the instrument on th
Kim McGee
Dec 30, 2013 rated it really liked it
This story is the perfect blend of magic and historical intrigue. Young destitute Nicolo Zen and his clarinet are on the streets playing to survive when he gets it into his head to try out for a very prestigious orchestra, one made up entirely of young girls. To do so Nicolo becomes Nicola and his talent soon becomes legendary. When the girls begin missing and Nicola becomes one of the next victims, the secret is out and he is cast from Master Vivaldi's special orchestra. Back again on the stree ...more
I liked this book a lot, but I was a little confused as to who the audience was supposed to really be and what kind of story the book was trying to tell. A great deal of it is a historical story about a youth who rises to fame on a magic clarinet, but then there is a substory about crossdressing, violence towards women, and orphans discovering who their real parents are... not to mention the 'Romeo and Juliet' aspect that the author was going for in the synopsis between the main protagonist and ...more
Apr 19, 2014 rated it it was ok
14-year-old Nicholas Zen is a gifted musician with an enchanted Clarinet, but in 1714 Venice, the newly invented instrument is uncommon. Recently orphaned, and disguised as a girl, he is admitted to the elite girl’s orchestra at the Ospedale in Venice, under the direction of Master Luca. But, when girls start disappearing, can Nicolas keep his identity secret?

This historical fiction is a nice travelogue of major European cities, and the action is well written and exciting, however it often gets
Oct 18, 2016 rated it really liked it
I really liked this book, but I may be a bit impartial seeing that I am a violinist. I thought it was interesting to get a little bit of background on the clarinet in the book, which I didn't even think about being new at the time. I am also a history nerd, so the settings in historical Europe were so interesting to me. Plus, the little throw in of magic I like. Hey, who doesn't want a little bit of fantasy in their life?
I can see where the author could've put in a little more character develop
R.A. Raab
Feb 20, 2014 rated it liked it
Just finished reading The True Adventures of Nicolo Zen by Nicholas Christopher. I love his adult books, and this was his first stab at middle grade fiction. It features an orphan in 1700s Venice who has a magical clarinet and winds up travelling to Vienna and other parts of Europe. It should have been right up my alley, but while it was very well written the story just fell flat for me. I didn’t care much for the characters and thought the clarinet was underutilized in the plot. A big missed op ...more
This book started out with such promise but then just lost it halfway through. I plodded on and on and kept thinking of the question "Why did you finish this book?" My answer to myself was that I initially planned on reviewing it for our Teens Read blog. As I slogged on and on I knew that wasn't an answer I wanted to give. So I skimmed the rest of the book and change my scheduled review! Too bad! I really liked the idea of a magical clarinet! ...more
Jun 25, 2014 rated it really liked it
Like reading a biography of Mozart where magicians come out to play. Nicolo Zen is a recently orphaned venetian boy whose only possession is a magical clarinet that only he can play. After disguising himself as a girl in order to join an orchestra made of up of orphans, his adventures really begin. The kind of off-kilter, slightly sinister magic you might remember from The Night Circus, but also a compelling portrait of Venice and Vienna in the early 18th century.

Jul 23, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: young-adult, fantasy
Nicolo is left to his own devices after the plague has left his entire family dead. He goes to Venice to try to make his way there. He has a magic clarinet in his possession, and he wants to get into an orchestra. Luckily, there is an orchestra made of of orphaned children. Unfortunately, it is only for girls. Nicolo is young enough that he can pass for a girl, but how long will his charade work?
fun read but nothing special. really love this author's writing, which was still good here, but something was just a little off / lacking in depth that i usually expect at this point. it was also very short. main character was interesting though and the almost present telling of the story was also good. i would recommend but not as a front runner.
Midge Bork
Jun 05, 2014 rated it really liked it
Disclaimer: I'm a huge fan of Nicholas Christopher's fiction. I like the magical elements in his stories and his vivid descriptions of locations. You can picture the scene, no matter how unreal it is. While reading this book I was reminder of The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window ...

Other Cristopher favorites include: Veronica and A Trip to the Stars.
Nov 19, 2015 rated it liked it
Part fantasy, part historical fiction, with a clarinet-playing boy as the main character. It is certainly an original story! Some of the content was more mature than I would want my 10 year old to read, but the musical intrigue was compelling. I also enjoyed the role of the Vienna orphanage for musical girls and the character of Vivaldi, since that is a fascinating part of music history.
Dana C.
Dec 01, 2015 rated it liked it
The imagery and quirky characters were well done. I especially wanted more on the slightly weird and extremely talented magician. The premise of the book, however, is better suited to a novel for grown ups instead of YA. I think students will have difficulty swallowing the minimal history used to set the tale as well as the broad leaps between dangerous situations.
Ms. Yingling
Had its moments-- a boy pretending to be a girl so he could get into a girls' orphanage in Venice after his family dies of malaria-- and the enchanted clarinet is intriguing, especially since the clarinet is fairly new at the time, but I just can't think of any of my students who would read this. ...more
Keith Martin
Feb 03, 2014 rated it really liked it
Another lovely bit of American Magic Realism from Nicholas Christopher. This is probably my third or fourth favorite of his novels, but that is actually high praise. I was somewhat disappointed by the abrupt and too-neat conclusion, but I enjoyed all of the parts of the story for their own sake.
Apr 12, 2014 rated it liked it
Interesting idea of putting the (enchanted) 'first' clarinet in its historical setting. It is refreshing to read of a boy who 'makes it big' and is still good-hearted after he has the means to pay back those who had helped him in the past. ...more
Jul 12, 2015 rated it really liked it
I really enjoyed this book. Nicolo's journey was action packed and I loved the bit of fantasy/magic that Mr. Christopher added. Mr. Christopher's writing style is wonderful and he really creates a setting that makes the story believable and easy to follow. ...more
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Nicholas Christopher was born and raised in New York City. He was educated at Harvard College, where he studied with Robert Lowell and Anthony Hecht. Afterward, he traveled and lived in Europe. He became a regular contributor to the New Yorker in his early twenties, and began publishing his work in other leading magazines, both in the United States and abroad, including Esquire, the New Republic, ...more

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