Italy’s castrati were once some of the most impressive and sought-after singers in the world. They represent a class of men who can produce a range of tones that are all but unheard of in the human voice, but with the power of an unusually flexible chest cavity. Such men could achieve amazing fame and prestige in their lifetimes – but never beyond. Set aside for operatic training at a young age, a potential castrato had to be castrated before he could reach puberty.
In Cry to Heaven, Anne Rice revisits the world of the castrati from the eyes of Antonio, a particularly gifted castrato, but not one who was ever supposed to be. Once the heir to one of the most powerful families in Venice, Tonio joined the ranks of castrati after a forced procedure designed to rob him of his inheritance and future sons. This is the story of his quest to find his own identity and place in the world while struggling with the overwhelming desire for revenge against the kinsman who cut him.
If anyone could write this book, it’s definitely Anne Rice. She is a master storyteller, and the rich worlds where she tells her stories create a feeling of realism that’s rare even among other acclaimed authors. She doesn’t disappoint when it comes to forming the mental image of the life and times of the castrati. As she points out before and after the book, great pains have been taken to make the story as historically accurate as possible. Very little remains on record about the castrati and their day-to-day lives, as they existed as truly separate from society, but Rice uses every possible historical resource and her considerable imagination to make it happen. In fact, it’s said that this recording is the only known audio of a real castrato, sang by Alessandro Moreschi (who also appears in the book) near the end of his career:
While the plot centers on Tonio, his story is just one of several within this book. Each of his companions and family members, from his mother to his greatest enemy, has their own history that they add to the mix. More than anything, this is what creates the intricate tale that illustrates the roles a given person could play in the society of the times. Each character has a dual persona – the person society sees, and the person who lives behind closed doors.
It’s really hard to pick a favorite character, though I could narrow it down to…about five. Just as Rice’s better-known vampire books rely on several story lines and well-developed characters, so too does Cry to Heaven. Tonio has his mentor, Guido, who was once a promising castrato himself until he inexplicably lost his singing voice. There’s Tonio’s immediate family, consisting of his mother, the man he knows as his father, and a newly-returned brother who was thought to be dead. Throw in rich and powerful patrons, high-ranking church officials and many more, and you have an authentic story of intrigue and power plays.
First, be warned that there’s a LOT of sex in Cry to Heaven. Did I stress that enough? Lots and lots of wild and graphic sex, occurring at least once a chapter. It’s mostly sex among men, though a lady or two does manage to make her way into the steamy scenes every now and then. Did I mention there’s a lot of sex? While I understand why Rice put it into the stories, it can get a bit overbearing at times. That said, I’m not sure how easy it would be to cut down on the amount and frequency. With each sexual encounter, Tonio’s personality and outlook change. In the beginning, sex is about love and comfort. As he progresses, it’s also about power, financial security, and maintaining his identity as a man and a human being. It did take a bit of getting used to – but then, I usually read non-fiction and don’t even read romance novels, so it’s a bit far from my usual literary fare.
Despite the overabundance of sex, it doesn’t get much better than this book for historical novels. Anne Rice uses settings from all over Italy, as well as the techniques that made her famous in the fantasy world. I’ve always loved her writing, though there are some of her stories I didn’t like particularly well, and this book is every bit the page-turner that you’d expect from this particular author. Overall, if you love historical novels, romances, intrigue, or any of Anne Rice’s other books, then you’ll probably love Cry to Heaven just as much as I did.
Disclaimer: This review was first published on Epinions.com. It is my property and I retain rights to it, though it continues to be displayed on Epinions under the username wychic. I have received no compensation from the author, publisher or anyone else affiliated with this book – the thoughts and opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.