The True Adventures of Nicolo Zen

Book review by
Andrea Beach, Common Sense Media
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Solid historical fiction, great for classical music lovers.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Young readers will learn a lot about the geography, history, and culture of Venice and Vienna in the early 1700s. They'll also learn about the history of the clarinet and about several important composers of the time, particularly Vivaldi. Italian and German words are easy to understand from their context.

Positive Messages

One lie leads to many more. Don't assume there will always be more opportunities -- seize the moment when it comes.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Nicolo is a resourceful, independent thinker. He educates himself by reading the classics when he gets the opportunity. He experiences firsthand how studying music improves his concentration and emotional well-being; he also knows the importance of daily practice. Very grateful to those who helped him out when he had nothing, he remembers them when he becomes successful. Female characters are less well developed but are smart, talented, and resourceful. Most adults Nicolo meets are helpful; others model a full range of behavior from evil and corrupt to benevolent.


For the most part, violence is infrequent and not detailed, a notable exception being two separate gruesome descriptions of dead bodies. Characters mention war violence, including a burned-out village and hangings, but don't go into specifics. Several fights occur, with head-bashing, stabbing, and one jaw-breaking punch.


Brief mention of about half a dozen kisses, but lots of detail in one kiss with tongue. Nicolo and Adriana, who eventually marry, have sex, but it's not described. Characters mention pimps, prostitutes, and the practice of abducting girls and selling them into the sex trade. Someone grabs at a character's breasts, and another time a character sees a woman's breasts through sheer fabric.


"Hell" is used three times; "bitch" and "whore" once each; and "pee" a couple of times.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Fifteen-year-olds are adults in the early 18th century, and they frequently drink wine, champagne, and ale at parties and with meals. Once, when he's still 14, Nicolo drinks too much wine, gets sick, and vomits, which causes him to exercise restraint afterward. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that despite the title, The True Adventures of Nicolo Zen is historical fiction. But kids will learn a lot about music and cultural history in 1700s Venice and Vienna. There's little sexual content, mostly mild kissing, although one kiss with tongue gets detailed attention. Hero Nicolo and the girl he eventually marries have premarital sex, but it's not described. There's little gore or violence, but there are some gruesome descriptions of dead bodies. Occasional strong language includes "hell," "bitch," and "whore."

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What's the story?

THE TRUE ADVENTURES OF NICOLO ZEN tells the story of a 15-year-old hero orphaned after an outbreak of malaria kills his entire family. Armed only with a clarinet and an uncanny knack for playing it, Nicolo makes his way to Venice and is quickly named soloist in the great master Vivaldi's orchestra. If only he hadn't had to disguise himself as a girl to get there. When the truth's discovered, Nicolo has to leave Venice and everything he knows behind. Fortunately, a mysterious magician benefactor sets him on the path to fame and riches, but will it last if he can't rely on the magical clarinet anymore?

Is it any good?

Nicholas Christopher, poet and author of several adult novels, makes his YA debut with this story that's well structured and evenly paced -- almost to a fault. The rich historical detail and engaging hero add some spice to the mix, though. Also, getting off the roller-coaster ride that dominates so much of YA literature to enjoy a story at a Four Seasons pace can be a refreshing change. History-loving kids will enjoy rooting for Nicolo and exploring the vivid world of European music in Vivaldi's time.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about why historical fiction is so popular. Why are the lives of people in other periods interesting to us?

  • Have you heard any music by Vivaldi? If you haven't, what do you imagine it sounds like? Check out some of his more famous works online or at the library. How do they compare to what you imagined?

  • Why do you think the story includes the magician character Massimo Magnifico? Do you think the "historical" story gets less believable after he appears? 

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love adventures and historical fiction

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