The Novel Approach is thrilled to have Hayden Thorne back with us today to celebrate her Young Adult masterpiece, Renfred’s Masquerade, a book that made my choice for best young adult book of 2011. It’s a gorgeous bit of storytelling, and Hayden has decided it’s time to introduce you to Nicola, the hero of this tale, by offering the chance for TWO lucky readers to win an e-copy of the book.
Enjoy the excerpt and see entry details below!
BLURB: Young Nicola Gregori has always wanted to follow in the footsteps of his father, a brilliant clock-maker who’s famous for his wild, fantastical designs. But his father instead sends him to school to learn more practical matters. Nicola, stricken with infantile paralysis that left him with a deformed right leg, becomes an object of mockery and cruel jokes in school. He learns that in order to survive his daily ordeals, he needs to vanish in the crowd, to stop aspiring, to stop dreaming, and above all, to believe himself unworthy of respect and love.
Tragedy strikes when Nicola turns sixteen. Gustav Renfred, an old friend of his father, takes on Nicola as his charge and whisks him away to an isolated islet filled with empty mansions and bordered by a bluebell forest. There Nicola slowly learns about the tragic history that tightly weaves together the fates of Jacopo Gregori, Gustav Renfred, and Gustav’s twin sister, Constanza.
Magic, impossible dreams, and unrequited love come together in Ambrosi, the Renfreds’ mansion, where Nicola is caught up in a world of haunting portraits, a ghostly housekeeper, and the mysterious disappearance of Davide, Constanza’s adopted son. When Nicola’s invited to one of Renfred’s magical masquerades, he discovers the answers to riddles as well as the mounting danger that the Renfred family faces with every passing hour. With the masquerades’ existence depending on the physical and mental strength of an ailing Renfred, the task of solving the mystery of Davide’s disappearance before time runs out falls on Nicola’s shoulders, and he has no choice but to depend on things he’s long learned to suppress: courage, self-respect, and the desire to aim for impossible goals.
Nicola frowned as he looked around him. The spell had broken somehow, but while it didn’t ruin the charming, colorful, and festive atmosphere of the masquerade, a keen awareness of the magical nature of the assembly now took over. He felt as though he were back in his usual logical self, baffled all over again by the fantastical nature of his surroundings and slowly finding himself being lured away from reality with promises of possibilities that went beyond his limited perceptions.
With that came a very unwelcome question: how would he be able to dance with someone who was, Nicola was now convinced, nothing more than a phantasm created by Renfred? He was the only flesh and blood being in that ballroom, and while the revelers appeared to be real, Nicola attributed that to the remarkable quality of Renfred’s skills.
The music ended, and the dancers whirled to a halt, their laughter replaced by the buzz of conversations. Some dancers left the floor and either took their places in the room’s periphery
or left the ballroom to rest elsewhere. The majority stood and chatted, waiting for the orchestra to rest before moving on to the next piece. No one seemed to notice him, but Nicola didn’t mind
at all. If he were invited to a magical masquerade for entertainment and not interaction, he was pleased for the most part, though he hoped that there would be real food available in another room, for he was sure that he’d be famished soon.
“Then again,” he muttered, sighing and clucking, as he looked around to admire the elaborate costumes of fellow guests, “why should I stay till three in the morning if all I’ll do is stand and watch, uh, ghosts dance and enjoy themselves?”
A surge of restlessness coursed through him, and Nicola abandoned his spot to walk along the room’s perimeter in order to observe the goings on more closely from different places. He deliberately walked close to some of those who stood near the walls, sometimes brushing against guests, but while none of them felt unreal or incorporeal, he remained ignored. Masked men and women pushed past him or didn’t meet his gaze, no matter how long he stood before someone and stared. He felt invisible, almost, the fact that he also wore a mask and a costume to hide his identity adding a degree of irony to the realization.
He had nearly reached the orchestra by now, noting that the musicians were already getting ready for the next dance as they took up their instruments again while turning the pages of their musical scores.
“Will you dance with me?”
Nicola nearly tripped on his own feet at the question as well as the sudden feel of warmth enveloping his left hand. He froze in his tracks and spun around, shocked. The young man in the odd white costume stood before him, holding his hand.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.”
Nicola blinked as he stared at the fellow and then dropped his gaze to their joined hands.
The young man in white smiled, releasing his hand. “That’s my costume. I hope it’s acceptable.”
“Oh.” Nicola looked to his left and then his right, not sure what was going on and wondering if now was a good time to leave despite the fact that he’d just arrived. “It’s an interesting costume, I’m sure.”
“So—will you dance with me?”
Nicola frowned, felt the urge to scratch his head in confusion but remembered that he was wearing a hat. Within seconds he went from feeling confused to feeling stupid, then suspicious, then shy. Swallowing, he feigned indifference and nodded. “I suppose.”
Pierrot grinned, perhaps reading Nicola’s bewilderment and the sudden threat of nausea that gripped him, and offered a hand. “We should take our place on the floor, or we’ll get squeezed out of it before we even start.”
“But where’s your partner?”
“He’s dancing with someone else now. It’s all right.”
Pierrot’s eyes sparkled with mischief, a brilliant light that his mask didn’t mute at all. “I swear I won’t hurt you.” When Nicola hesitated some more, he added in a softer voice, “Please.”
“I’m sorry. This is my first masquerade.” Nicola felt sheepish beside his new partner as he was led to the floor, his nervousness taking on a completely different dimension. He’d never danced the waltz before; he’d never danced at all before. He was sure that he’d end up injuring his partner within the first few bars of the next piece. That is, if make-believe people could be injured. The urge to vomit continued to threaten, but he forced it away, reminding himself that this was supposed to be nothing more than good fun. Renfred had taken the trouble to conjure up a themed masked ball for Nicola’s sake and even acquiesced to Nicola’s plea for a normal right leg. Whether or not this Pierrot fellow was a specter that was meant to be his partner Nicola couldn’t tell, but he wasn’t about to be an ungrateful brat, and he chided himself for his nerves and awkwardness.
“Don’t ask questions,” he murmured. “Play along and enjoy what you can.”
He’d just finished his self-directed lecture when Pierrot stopped and turned around. “This is a good spot for us,” he said.
When Nicola stared, his confidence slipping again, Pierrot chuckled. “If it’s your first time, I’ll guide you. It’s really very simple.”
Stepping forward, he gave Nicola brief and clear instructions on how to hold one’s partner, and before long, Nicola found himself in a very intimate and nerve-wracking partial embrace, with his partner smiling down at him, while he could only swallow a dozen times, his eyes unblinking and ready to pop out of their sockets.
“Relax and let yourself move with the music,” Pierrot said. Nicola nodded, his body still rigid. It didn’t help that his partner suddenly leaned close and spoke into his ear next. “I’ll take care of you. Just enjoy yourself.”
The noise of dozens of conversations broke to the beginning strains of the next waltz—one that was as heavy and insistent as it was rhythmic, melodic beauty shedding any pretenses to poetry and speaking of a people’s hardship and enduring pride. The strains haunted with melancholy but romantic images that clung to Nicola’s mind as he danced around the room, awed, mortified, and exhilarated by the strangeness of this new experience.
“Don’t look at your feet. Look at me.”
Simple enough directions, but difficult to follow. Nicola found that he couldn’t look straight into his partner’s eyes, the self-consciousness and embarrassment weaving an uncomfortable thread in the mix of emotions that defined his first dance. But he also felt compelled to, largely because his partner’s eyes exuded intelligence and sadness that affected Nicola in a way that was foreign to him. Suddenly he wanted to know this young man’s story, and suddenly, he wanted to be with his partner all night, though he was still quite fuzzy as to what was going on regarding Pierrot’s acknowledgment of his presence, given his observations on the rest of the assembly’s indifference.
I dithered over whether or not to add a video to this post, and I decided to go ahead with it. It’s a piece that inspired the scene, actually, and I listened to it repeatedly while writing it. Ignore the fact that it’s totally anachronistic to the time period of the story. 🙂
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: I’ve lived most of my life in the San Francisco Bay Area though I wasn’t born there (or, indeed, the USA). I’m married with no kids and three cats, am a cycling nut (go Garmin!), and my day job involves artwork, great coworkers who specialize in all kinds of media, and the occasional strange customer requests involving papier mache fish with sparkly scales.
I’m a writer of young adult fiction, specializing in contemporary fantasy, historical fantasy, and historical genres. My books range from a superhero fantasy series to reworked folktales to Victorian ghost fiction. My themes are coming-of-age with very little focus on romance (most of the time) and more on individual growth with some adventure thrown in.
ON GENRE FICTION FOR LGBT TEENS:
LGBT teens have all sorts of stories to tell. They’re heroes not only of contemporary adventures or of fantasy and magic, but also of history. The rules might be different – stricter, a bit more frightening given 19th century laws, for instance – but there are still dreams to be shaped, character to be developed, and all of these done within the parameters set by the genre. It’s going to be a challenge, sure, but if it means allowing LGBT kids their own time in the “limelight” of, say, the Victorian stage, I’m game.
THE GIVEAWAY: THIS CONTEST IS NOW CLOSED