Published by Orchard Books.
Review by Elizabeth Gibson.
Holly Webb has written a number of series for children – the Puppies and Kittens series, the Rose and Lily stories – and when a novel is part of a larger series it is tempting to suspect it may lack individuality. Indeed, having read some of Webb’s animal stories when I was younger I can confirm that they tend to be very alike, though well-written.
Her Venice series, however, is something else. I reviewed its first instalment, The Water Horse, for Cuckoo back in 2015 and I was impressed by how Webb succeeded in making the setting of historical Venice – with some magic thrown in – seem so appealing to young readers. The writer’s passion for the city shone from the pages and the sights, sounds and smells of the palaces and canals transported me back in time.
The Girl of Glass is the fourth book in the series, and I was hoping it would match the quality of The Water Horse while also covering new territory. It did – quite literally. We are taken out of Venice proper and instead spend time on the nearby island of Murano, with a glassmaking family. Both the beautiful but lonely location and the unusual trade are brought alive with sensuous language and vivid imagery. Glasswork clearly fascinates the author, and by the end of the novel I imagine many readers will want to learn more about it.
The first two books in the series deal with the nobility, so it is nice to now meet a girl from a more ordinary family – Mariana is not impoverished, but her lifestyle is less ornate than the Duchess and Lady of Venice. She has to travel in and out of the city running errands and for a spell holds down a job as a servant, which allows us to see a whole other side of life for children of the time. Mariana desperately wants to be apprenticed to an artist or magician, but as a girl faces many obstacles. She is feisty and outspoken and a great protagonist. Julia, a secondary character, is also brilliant and I hope that we see more of her in future Venice tales.
The main storyline – about a glass doll that appears to come to life – has the feel of an ancient fable or fairy-tale. It is intensely sad at times and the ending is somewhat shocking – the bubble of magic and mystery bursts and the harsh reality of what loss and mental illness can do to someone leads to a really horrific scene. I admire Webb for being brave enough to do this; on the other hand, it does leave you reeling for a while. Though there is no neat conclusion, there is a strong sense of hope as the novel closes.
Overall, this is a gorgeous book – hard-hitting at times, but very well-crafted and with a timeless and classical feel. I would honestly recommend it to young adults as well as to the tweens it is probably aimed at. It is really quite special.