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Reviews of The Curse of Pietro Houdini by Derek Miller

The Curse of Pietro Houdini

A Novel

by Derek B. Miller

The Curse of Pietro Houdini by Derek B. Miller X
The Curse of Pietro Houdini by Derek B. Miller
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  • Published:
    Jan 2024, 384 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
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About this Book

Book Summary

From the Dagger Award–winning author of Norwegian by Night comes a vivid, thrilling, and moving World War II art-heist-adventure tale where enemies become heroes, allies become villains, and a child learns what it means to become an adult—for fans of All the Light We Cannot See.

August, 1943. Fourteen-year-old Massimo is all alone. Newly orphaned and fleeing from Rome after surviving the American bombing raid that killed his parents, Massimo is attacked by thugs and finds himself bloodied at the base of the Montecassino. It is there in the Benedictine abbey's shadow that a charismatic and cryptic man calling himself Pietro Houdini, the self-proclaimed "Master Artist and confidante of the Vatican," rescues Massimo and brings him up the mountain to serve as his assistant in preserving the treasures that lay within the monastery walls.

But can Massimo believe what Pietro is saying, particularly when Massimo has secrets too? Who is this extraordinary man? When it becomes evident that Montecassino will soon become the front line in the war, Pietro Houdini and Massimo execute a plan to smuggle three priceless Titian paintings to safety down the mountain. They are joined by a nurse concealing a nefarious past, a café owner turned murderer, a wounded but chipper German soldier, and a pair of lovers along with their injured mule, Ferrari. Together they will lie, cheat, steal, fight, kill, and sin their way through battlefields to survive, all while smuggling the Renaissance masterpieces and the bag full of ancient Greek gold they have rescued from the "safe keeping" of the Germans.

Heartfelt, powerfully engaging, and in the tradition of City of Thieves by David Benioff, The Curse of Pietro Houdini is a work of storytelling bravado: a thrilling action-packed adventure heist, an imaginative chronicle of forgotten history, and a philosophical coming-of-age epic where a child navigates one of the most enigmatic and morally complex fronts of World War II and lives to tell the tale.

Chapter One

PIETRO HOUDINI CLAIMED THAT LIFE clung to him like a curse and if he could escape it he would. His namesake—the Hungarian, the American, the Jew, the illusionist—died in 1926, a full seventeen years before Pietro and I met in the dirt by the side of the road in an Italian village beneath the long shadow of the abbey of Montecassino. I was bloodied and blue, lying in a gutter, and he was standing above me, white and glowing and pristine like a marble god.

In his late fifties, Pietro seemed immortal to me. He had a mane of long, thick white hair to his shoulders, a close beard, an angular face, and a muscular body.

He reached out his hand and I took it.

I had been in the gutter because I had been an orphan fleeing south from Rome after the bombings and I never stopped until a group of boys assaulted me, choked me, and left me for dead.

Pietro had been standing over me for reasons of his own, some of them soon to be announced and declared, others hidden and protected ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide will contain spoilers!
  1. In the book's first sentence, the narrator says that "Pietro Houdini claimed that life clung to him like a curse and if he could escape it he would." Then, in the final sentence of the book, the narrator claims that "I am the curse of Pietro Houdini." What do you think the narrator means by this, and what throughout the book and the relationship between Pietro and the narrator support this claim?
  2. Why did the narrator cling to Pietro, and how do you the trauma/events of Pietro's past draw him into such a close relationship with the narrator?
  3. What was your initial reaction when Pietro shared that, in order to hide the Tiziano paintings from the Nazis, he would paint over them? How does this relate to the theme of beauty growing out of...
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BookBrowse Review


The plot is so much richer than a simple period piece or art heist yarn; everything about it is complex, from the relationships between the characters to the moral ambiguities one must navigate in wartime. The Curse of Pietro Houdini checks all the boxes for truly great historical fiction: authentic, likable characters, exquisite writing, engrossing plot, and absorbing historical detail. I strongly suspect it'll end up on my "best of" list for the year, and perhaps for the decade; it's one of those novels that stays with you long after you've finished it. This is a must-read for fans of World War II fiction, particularly those who've enjoyed novels like All the Light We Cannot See and City of Thieves. Highly recommended...continued

Full Review Members Only (758 words)

(Reviewed by Kim Kovacs).

Media Reviews

Hadassah Magazine
Cinematic... The cast of characters resembles a modern version of Chaucer's band of pilgrims—the boy, the art restorer who saves him, a nun, a cafe owner and murderer, a wounded German soldier and an injured mule named Ferrari.

The Christian Science Monitor
Derek B. Miller delivers an irresistible story of defiance.

The Colorado Sun
A wonderful novel, full of heart and humor and stunning characters. Derek B. Miller's prose is deeply compelling, and he layers in quite a bit of detail to make it all the more realistic. For fans of historical fiction, this is a great read. It's exciting, but never strays too far away from a historical character drama, and is a unique perspective on the back half of World War II... Certainly one of my top reads from this year. Those who pick it up will have a great time with it.

The Washington Post
[A] brilliantly imagined work of fiction... Entertaining and compelling, this extremely well-written and fast-paced novel uses many factual events as a background. Readers will enjoy the book's history and drama, as well as Miller's captivating cast of characters.

BookPage (starred review)
The Curse of Pietro Houdini boasts a little bit of everything—a truly fascinating setting; rich, quirky characters; tragedy, suspense, warmth and humor. Derek B. Miller has shown the range of his talents in six previous novels, but this may be his masterpiece... An epic novel that manages to convey an extraordinary yet realistic story encapsulating the horrors of war... Many readers, in fact, may be reminded of Anthony Doerr's beloved World War II novel, All the Light We Cannot See.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Miller... is a splendid storyteller... the novel works equally well as wartime tale, heist thriller, coming-of-age story, and sweeping history and art lesson... A brilliantly imagined World War II saga.

Library Journal
Ideal for historical-fiction fans who want insight on Italian civilians surviving World War II.

Publishers Weekly
Miller's historical adventure is worth the price of admission.

Reader Reviews

Cloggie Downunder

a moving, sometimes blackly funny, and thought-provoking page-turner.
“The wrinkles around his eyes and on his forehead spoke more of wear than years and I felt his presence to be dramatic and theatrical and magnetic: as though my eyes couldn’t help but fall on him and when they did—like being drawn to a performer ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

US Military Mules in World War II

Black and white photo of mules being led across a body of water by a military mule skinnerOne of the characters in Derek B. Miller's novel The Curse of Pietro Houdini is a limping mule named Ferrari. The author notes that mules were used extensively during World War II in the Italian theater, in areas where trucks couldn't go, such as mountain passes and forests.

Mules are remarkable creatures that have been used as pack animals for millennia. The offspring of a male donkey and a female horse, mules inherit the best characteristics of each. They're hardier, eat less, and live longer than horses, and they also have harder hooves, making them ideal for rocky terrain. They're less stubborn but more intelligent than donkeys, which makes them easier to train.

It's not known precisely when mules first appeared, but it's thought...

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