Giulia Borromeo's life is defined by walls, the walls of her convent, the walls of the cell into which she is locked every night, the walls of the society which decrees she can be only a servant, a nun, or a prostitute. But Giulia is an artist, a painter with a gift that is bigger than the small space her world wants to give it, a painter who can literally hear the song the pigments make as they await the artist's hand. And yet within the walls of her life, she had found an unexpected treasure, the only workshop for female artists in all of medieval Italy, presided over by a nun of immense talent, and a heart big enough to recognize and encourage Giulia's.
But when her mentor dies, the workshop leadership is assumed by Domenica, a woman with an entirely different attitude. Giulia knows that once she takes her final vows, she will be relegated to a lifetime of menial tasks, whether or not she accedes to the demand to yield up the secret formula for Passion Blue, a pigment that dazzles like no other. The only other option is fleeing the safety of the convent and throwing herself into a dangerous world for which she is totally unprepared, pursued by the unscrupulous man who desires Passion Blue above all else, and beset by all the other predators waiting to pounce on a solitary young woman with no street smarts, no resources, and no protector.
Kirkus Reviews named Passion Blue, Victoria Strauss's first book about Giulia Borromeo, a Best Teen Book of 2012. I had not read Passion Blue, but I did not find that to be much of a problem, as Strauss fills us in on the back-story without being unduly heavy-handed. The fantastical elements in the first seem to have been more pronounced; in Color Song they are negligible, consisting only in Giulia's ability to actually hear colors, a kind of enhanced synaesthesia.
Color Song is more historical fiction than fantasy. Above all else, it is a coming-of-age story, taking place in a world that gave women very few options. Giulia's determination to be an artist puts her in opposition to an entire society, and places her very life in danger.
The story is well-told, with excellent pacing. The author allows the tension to subside occasionally, but just when we – and Giulia – are starting to get a wee bit comfortable, another wave rocks the boat, or perhaps I should say gondola, seeing as the story takes place mostly in Venice. Strauss very ably makes us appreciate the magnitude of the challenges facing Giulia, as well as the sacrifices she must make in a society that will not allow her to be both a woman and a painter. The characters are also nicely sketched, although hewing perhaps a little too closely to well-worn stereotypes. It is not a fatal flaw, even less so in a book aimed at teen readers who have not yet been exposed to them multiple times.
It is my hope that Color Song will find a wider audience than just teenage girls. By squeezing us into the very narrow passages that society imposes on Giulia, it makes us appreciate her desperate efforts to scale the walls, literally and figuratively, and encourages us to reflect on the nature of oppression in all times and places.