Translated from the Italian by Leah D. Janeczko, this book is the first of four in the Century Quartet. The other three books, in order, are: Star of Stone, City of Wind, and Dragon of Seas. You might speculate, based on these titles, that the series has something to do with the medieval "elements" of fire, earth, air, and water. And after reading this book, you would have even more reason to suspect this.
The ring of fire in Pierdomenico Baccalario's fantasy world is not a flaming hoop to jump through, the mouth of a volcano, or even love (with all due respect to Johnny Cash). In this case, it's an actual ring, like one might wear on one's finger. And the finger that wears this ancient, powerful ring could wield terrifying power—like, for example, the power to burn the city of Rome to the ground. That's why the ring's location is a secret known only to the handful of people who guard it. And that's why, just when that group is about to pass the (cough) torch to four specially chosen members of the younger generation, a modern-day Dark Lord is willing to kill to get hold of it.
Our main characters only learn this much in bits and pieces, as the story unfolds. First they must discover each other: four children from widely different backgrounds, who happen to share the same unlikely birthday, and who happen to find themselves sharing a room in an overbooked hotel in Rome during the week between Christmas and New Year. The coincidence is really only remarkable in the case of three of the guests—Mistral, Harvey, and Sheng—since they have traveled from as far away as Paris, New York, and Shanghai. It's not such a surprise to find Elettra there; she lives in the hotel year round, because her family owns it. What is surprising about Elettra is her weird, burny hands that sometimes let loose a discharge of power, with results ranging from an exploding light bulb to a citywide blackout. She also has an aversion to mirrors, which lose their reflectiveness when she looks into them. So you can trust that any adventure involving Elettra will be a strange one.
What none of the children would expect, though, is an adventure that begins with a strange man handing them a suitcase full of weird clues, just before he is murdered by a violinist with a razor-sharp bow. Now the violinist, actually a hit man who calls himself Joseph Mahler, is after the kids and the gimmicks that they have only begun to recognize as a map to the ring of fire. The idea of Joseph Mahler getting his hands on the ring isn't what should scare you. The idea of the creature Mahler works for is what should scare you. While the frightened kids race from one local character or point of interest to another, it is increasingly clear to them that killers and kidnappers are in the race with them—and not only the kids, but their families too, are in grave danger. But then, so is the world.
The four kids in this book, in spite of their shared birthday, form an interesting group of heroes with their contrasting and complementary talents, interests, and personalities. Harvey, the spoiled American rich kid, can be a sullen brat when he wants to (and that's most of the time), but he also has a nugget of Romantic Hero material within him. Good-humored Sheng—whose frequent exclamation of hao! translates to something like "Cool!"—braves a completely alien city to make some clever discoveries. And fashion princess Mistral, whose mother designs perfumes, manages to survive after being completely at the mercy of a coldblooded killer. These kids work so well together that, when they go their separate ways, you can be sure their joint adventures are only beginning. Or maybe the three sequels were your clue. Anyway, hao!
Saint Louis USA
Recommended Age: 12+
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