Set in the 18th century world of the castrati of Naples, Venice and Rome, this novel, by the author of "The Vampire Chronicles", focuses on two men, shunned as half-men - one from a wealthy Venetian family, the other the child of peasant parents. The novel questions our understanding of gender.
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More period exotica by the author of such languorous entertainments as Interview with a Vampire and The Feast of All Saints: this time Rice explores the musical demiworld of the 18th-century castrati - those flute-voiced, angelic singers who as boys were "mutilated to make a choir of seraphim, their song a cry to heaven that heaven did not hear." The star of this terrible show is primo Tonio Treschi - but before his entrance there's the sadly common-place history of Tonio's teacher/lover Guido Maffeo, a peasant child, castrated at six for the sake of heavenly music, who loses his voice at 17 but finally settles down to gifted teaching and composition at the Castrati music school in Naples. And it's at about this time in Venice that handsome 15-year-old Tonio, son of the patrician Andrea and young melancholy Marianna, finds his life shadowed and then threatened when he learns that his "dead" half-brother Carlo is very much alive: after Andrea's death, the sinister, disinherited Carlo (who is really Tonio's father!) neatly eliminates Tonio by ordering his abduction and castration. So, forced to announce publicly that this was his own decision to save his beautiful singing voice, Tonio arrives at Guido's conservatory, nearly insane with rage and grief. But on the flanks of Mount Vesuvius he accepts two tasks: a) he swears Revenge on Carlo; b) he will continue to sing up a storm. And later he will ponder his sexual identity with: Guido, a life-long love; gentle feline boys; "masculine" men - including a learned Roman Cardinal; and then the lovely Christina Grimaldi, a painter. Thus, Tonio probes the essence of maleness and femaleness: ". . . if I were part of one or the other or even part of both." And finally it will be Tonio's transvestite allure - he is at last persuaded to take a female role in Guido's opera - that will inch Carlo to his doom. . . in a marvelously shuddering showdown. Rice has convincingly reconstructed performance and training highlights in this era of ornamental vocalization; and the dialogue, assassin-filled plot, and erotica moments all oom-pah away to a splendidly flowery operatic tempo - con amore, con brio, con carnage. (Kirkus Reviews)