The Curse of Pietro Houdini

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The latest novel from Derek B. Miller. It's totally unlike his other books, except for its general excellence.

It is mostly set during World War II in Italy, and follows the odyssey of a young Italian orphan whose parents were killed in an American bombing run in Rome. The orphan flees to the town of Cassino, gets choked and left for dead in a gutter, rescued from that gutter by Pietro Houdini ("not his real name") and enlisted in Pietro's outrageous scheme to save priceless Renaissance paintings from Nazi looters. Those paintings are up in Montecassino Abbey, home to Benedictine monks, a storehouse of centuries of art.

You can see the paintings that Pietro wants to save here.

Pietro warns that it's going to be dangerous. In fact, it involves a great deal of violence, lies, accidents, and the general horror of war. Pietro accumulates a number of accomplices along the way in addition to the orphan, including a mule named "Ferrari", and … sorry, they don't all make it to the end of the book.

The book is a mixed bag of fiction and fact. The town of Cassino and Montecassino Abbey are real, and the wartime events Miller describes actually happened. Specifically, the Allies bombed the abbey into ruins in February 1944, killing zero Germans, and a couple hundred Italian civilians seeking refuge there.

When I started the book, I worried that it was going to be too "arty" for me. There's a lot of narrative trickery involved, and some garish descriptions. I should not have been concerned; Miller knows what he's doing.

No spoilers, but page 338 in the hardcover is magical.