Peter Dickinson, . . Random/Lamb, $16.95 (197pp) ISBN 978-0-385-73098-3

Burning questions—about the twin influences of nature and nurture, the true meaning of family, and the possibility of guiding one's fate, to name a few—blaze below the surface of Dickinson's (The Ropemaker; A Bone from a Dry Sea) engrossing, almost operatic novel, set in long-ago Italy. Alfredo has a passion for music and sings in the cathedral choir, and he also has a deep knowledge of fire, so that he loves to tend the enormous ovens in his father's bakery. But when his family is killed in a freak fire, Alfredo goes to live with his secretive Uncle Giorgio in the DiSala ancestral home, a vast and lonely place on the slopes of Mount Etna. There he discovers that his enthusiasms run deep in his blood: for centuries his ancestors have used the power of music to control the volcanic mountain's fire. Uncle Giorgio, however, turns out to have a nefarious plan in store, and Alfredo enlists the aid of two unlikely allies to bring things to rights. Pitch-perfect, unobtrusive storytelling gracefully cedes center stage to the story's near-mythic elements. Thoughtful readers will find much to ponder in the afterglow of this tale of an alchemy powerful enough to transmute a handful of isolated, unhappy beings into a loving family and to change an existence scorched by tragedy into a life worth living. Ages 10-up. (Aug.)