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A Merging of Balkan and Venetian History and Worlds - an Editorial Review of "Mask of Dreams"

Book Blurb:

In 15th century Venice, Caterina struggles against the inevitability of an arranged marriage to a man old enough to be her father. Powerless, she is consumed by dread as the process spins out of control. The betrothal fails. A letter meant to manage future suitors goes astray. Out of the violence of the Balkans comes Rade, a lawless, charismatic Slav. Having won the letter―containing a belief that the soul's beauty is reflected in the beauty of the face―in a card game, he sees it as the hand of fate.

Though scarred, Rade attempts through the artifice of a lifelike mask, to enter her world of mercantile wealth. To protect Caterina, her father negotiates a lengthy agreement. The mask, meant to be a temporary ruse, becomes, of necessity, permanent. To further complicate the situation for Caterina, a new love interest appears. From fairs to shipwrecks, bull-baiting to rescues, noble house to villa in the hills, the time arrives when Rade is hopelessly entangled in her life. Desperate, he finds he can no longer continue the deception. A choice must be made.

Author Bio:

Leigh Grant has degrees in art history and fine art. She attended Hollins College, now Hollins University, and Pratt Institute and studied and lived in Paris and London. A former illustrator, with a number of books to her credit, she won the Steven Dohanos Award for Our Own Show, Society of Illustrators, appeared on the Christmas Today Show with Katie Couric, and was selected by the Book of the Month Club for her book The Twelve Days of Christmas: A History and Celebration, which, other than the lyrics, she both wrote and illustrated. Two popup books on Rome and Egypt followed. Having completed the certificate course at NYU, she is currently an appraiser of fine art. As a writer, she is fascinated by the Italian Renaissance and the Venetian Empire. Mask of Dreams, as an unpublished manuscript, was recipient of Chanticleer Reviews 2017 Chatelaine Grand Prize for Romantic and Women's Fiction and short-listed for Winner Historical Fiction Before 1750, Chaucer Award. A sequel is underway. She has two children, loves Rhodesian Ridgebacks, riding, sailing, Nantucket, and adventure, and lives in Norwalk, Connecticut.

Editorial Review:

Watch a man in times of adversity to discover what kind of man he is; for then at last words of truth are drawn from the depths of his heart, and the mask is torn off.

― Titus Lucretius Carus, De Rerum Natura

Of them all, I'd marry Eliduc,” she said, pulling at the embroidery she'd managed to sew by error to the part hanging from the frame. “Or Tristan. Or Lancelot.” Nonna stared at her.

Couldn't you pick one who wasn't an adulterer?”

They were faithful to the women they loved. And besides, they were heroes.”

Whatever happened to Aeneas? Or Achilles?”

They weren't knights,” said Caterina, finally separating the two pieces of cloth. “I'm only interested in knights.”

In a very artistic and masterful way, Ms Grant brings the Italian Renaissance and some undiscovered Slavic and Venetian history to life within this story which is quite unexpected. Throughout the narrative, with the insertion of ancient philosophical and poetic quotes to begin the chapters, the story feels very Shakespearean at times, as if this story developed from one of his Italian plays, such as “The Merchant of Venice” or “Romeo and Juliet," yet Ms Grant's voice comes across as unique and refreshing, not to mention stunning at times.

If I'd been born a man,” replied Caterina stormily, “my very birth would decide my place in society. I'd be fixed there like a mollusk on a mooring pole. You'd be forced to accept me as I am.” She steeled herself to remain calm. “In being born a woman, and born into wealth,” she said bitterly, “I find I am nothing but a pawn.” She laid her palms on the front edge of his desk, the cloak framing her rich dress in wool and fur, a dark bird with a plum-colored breast. “Father, I am all there is of you. Assign me the dignity of your patrimony. Try to imagine me as your son.”

Straightaway the reader is introduced to Caterina and Rade, back and forth between chapters, until merging together as their lives entwine. Caterina, at first, is a child already betrothed to an elderly man (Ariosto), and shows her willfulness when she balks at the union. Her father, a wealthy Venetian merchant, is determined to see her well-married. Yet fate plays a hand throughout this novel, and Caterina is saved from the union, only to face a plethora of other suitors after her father sends out letters far and wide inviting them to his home. One of the letters, quite unexpectedly, falls into a Slavic man, Rade's hands. Reading the chapters of his life, the reader becomes quickly attached to him, following him as he endures brutality in the Balkans, emerging as a Capitano on a ship, and acquiring the letter during a card game. The words of the letter seal his fate, words reflecting Caterina's belief that a man's soul is reflected in the beauty of his face, thus sending Rade on a quest for her hand. But first, he pays a master artisan to construct a skin-like mask to conceal the scars on his face and to hide his true self to begin a new life away from his thieving and violent days.

Here is your first art lesson.” He picked up some impurities out of the mixture and looked up. “If you were to turn over a painted panel, a portrait, you might see a mask on the verso. Or you might see one in a detail. Or in a carving. That mask is the symbol of false dreams.... Behind the mask, you become equal to people who are not your equals.”

Before long, he finds himself ingratiated into Venetian life and betrothed to Caterina, yet the mask, which at first was a temporary disguise, becomes a part of Rade's life as he hides behind the veil, not realizing that a sort of “mask” hides his heart, as well. Yet, Caterina is searching for a beauty which she at first does not recognize, being so young and naive. It is this naivety which prevents a connection between them, and as her Nonna says to Rade that she gives compassion to him the same way she would to a dog. As time passes, and as Caterina's interests turn to a charismatic, handsome young man named Alessandro, Rade begins to question the path he has taken to not only win Caterina's heart but to try to transform his former life. Yet, again, fate steps in and not only reveal Alessandro for his true self, but Caterina and Rade transform into fully mature and responsible adults... ones with an unveiled understanding of love, sacrifice, honor, and most of all, truth. Both of them, ultimately, lay everything on the line in order to unmask their hearts and all the pain, loss, and beliefs, and leave the decision for both of their futures in each other's hands.

The real shock lay not so much in what was different but rather in what ways it was the same. The mask had represented more than purity of profile and beauty of appearance; it had portrayed, in a malevolence all its own, that, which given other circumstances, he might have been. She thought that, in all this time, he could not have realized it, and continued the disguise.

The crafting of this story, the world-building is truly immense, and the research the author has done shines like a beacon throughout the storyline. It is obvious Ms Grant is an expert in15th-century Balkan and Venetian history and culture. Yet the history is melded with finesse with intriguing characters displaying all the human emotions of love, jealousy, compassion, frailty, rejection, forgiveness, self-doubt, and the desire to break free from society's standards of the time period. While lengthy and sometimes perplexing in the flow of some of the passages or scenes (sometimes having to re-read two and three times to understand what was happening), the way the story develops and seeing these characters emerge from their cocoons is well worth the time and effort needed to finish the novel. Ms Grant is to be commended for such an outstanding job. This is a remarkable feat of accomplishment.

She lingered, realizing for perhaps the first time, the exquisite beauty of this small enclosure of the natural world, its roses, tree, herbs, grasses and tiny flowers, its canopy of azure sky, the intermittent passage of birds, its lazy airs with a taste of salt – knowing that what she did on this day, in this hour, would define this space forever. It would define her forever. That she held the fate of another human being in her hands. A very human being who was blood and bone and flesh, and could be broken. Was willing to be broken. And that she sat in the seat of Justice with the scales in her hand and her words would add the defining weight.


Mask of Dreams” by Leigh Grant receives five stars and the “Highly Recommended” award of excellence from The Historical Fiction Company



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