Tears of the Salamander (2003), by Peter Dickinson

This is an interesting and engaging pseudo-historical novel set in an alternative medieval Italy, in which alchemy and magic are powerful and feared forces.  Young Alfredo is orphaned, and moves to live with his Uncle Giorgio. He begins to learn the secrets of his family, his uncle’s control of and inextricable connection with the fiery powers of the volcano, Mt. Etna. Alfredo is destined to become his uncle’s heir, learning his powers, taking on the mystical control that he is told is his birthright. The story is engaging, but it is the characterization of young Alfredo and his associates that glows with alchemical brilliance.

While Tears of the Salamander seems to be written to a younger audience, in terms of language and length, it contains a few references which are aimed at more worldly readers, such as the topic of castration of young boys to retain their high-pitched voices in the choir and priests lusting after young boys (a passing reference).  All in all, it is a well-written and fast-moving narrative that incorporates the magic seamlessly into the everyday life of Dickinson’s alternative world. Tears of the Salamander is my favourite of Dickinson’s novels; I enjoyed it more than the similarly imaginative Ropemaker, perhaps because it is not attempting to be as epic, and is thus a more self-contained, satisfying reading experience.



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