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Philip Reeve
The Wager - Donna Jo Napoli Don Giovanni de la Fortuna is an Italian story about a man who makes a deal with the devil. If he refrains from cleaning himself for three years, three months, and three days, he can keep a magical purse that will give him all the money he could ever want. If he breaks the no washing rule, his soul is forfeit. Donna Jo Napoli has written a pretty straight forward interpretation set in late 12th century Sicily. (Which is, if I may rant a bit, not ancient. The term you're looking for, dear blurb writer, is medieval. High Middle Ages, to be exact.)

So, what did Napoli do right? Let's start with Giovanni himself. He starts the book as a selfish and thoughtless young man, but he really isn't a bad person. It's obvious nearly right away that there's a good heart in there, even if he is a bit selfish, something of a libertine, and dumb as a box of hair when it comes to money. If he'd started as a bad person, I couldn't have felt sorry for everything he went through, or been so happy when he beats the devil.

I also have to commend Napoli for not shying away from the grim details of what happens when somebody doesn't clean himself at all for years. It isn't pretty. There's a common, mistaken impression that people in Ye Olden Days didn't wash, but the general reaction to Giovanni by ordinary people will quickly dispell that notion. (Not taking fully immersive baths =/= a lack of washing!)

Why only two stars? Well, part of that is because this is a very straight forward retelling. If you read the version I linked to, you have essentially read this book. That's not as bad as it would be in a much more well-known story, of course. The other thing is that, well, Napoli and I are not meant to be. I've read a few of her books over the years, and there's something about her writing style that keeps her work from really clicking with me. I'm not saying she's a bad writer. I think she's a very good one, and I love that she puts a lot of care into writing these books. She's just not the writer for me.