This is definitely one case where you should judge a book by its cover. The clothing is beautiful. There is intrigue, politics, and murder; a team of paranormally gifted heroes; and of course there is romance. Think Downton Abbey set in Portugal, if all the sea folk of mythologies existed. Mermaids (or sirens, called Seria in the book), Selkie (Scottish – seal men and women), and Russian Rusalka (cross a water nymph, succubus, and a ghost). And the magic is real, a system that is as much science as it is art.
J. Kathleen Cheney’s “The Golden City” opens with Oriana Paredes witnessing the drowning death of her employer and dear friend in a tiny replica of their house. She escapes the same fate only because of who she is: a Seria spy working in the Golden City, where all sea folk have been exiled. Duilio Ferriera, a minor aristocrat with some seer ability learns of her plight and goes looking for her. Once they find each other, they work together to unravel the mystery of The City Under the Sea.
Her setting is richly imagined. We see glimpses of industry, religion, households with their servants, restaurants of different classes, the police, and the secret police and all that implies of the government. There are electric trams and lights next to horse drawn carriages. Overall, it’s a delightful place to be that is so well developed it feels as if it could have been an historical fiction rather than a fantasy. Just when you think you understand where you’re at, another element gets introduced that widens the world in a way that makes you want to explore it more.
Though at times it felt predictable, the ending brought together most of the elements of the book in a satisfying conclusion which still manages a compelling cliffhanger. Over all The Golden City is a great first book to what looks to be an interesting series.
In some ways, this book reminds me of Mary Robinette Kowel’s Shades of Milk and Honey books. Both have strong female protagonists and a romantic historical setting with strict social conventions. The fantastical elements of both are pervasive, but are treated as natural parts of the world – able to be studied in meaningful ways.
But of the two series, I think I like Cheney’s work more. Some of this might be due to the fact that she planned a series, while Kowel’s first book, written as a stand alone, did well enough that they asked for a second and then a third. This means that each book was stand alone, and there was little in the way of an overarching plot – which meant that as a romance the 2nd and 3rd books mostly failed, since that was no longer a real sense of tension. The Golden City does have an overarching plot in several of the storylines. There are several loose ends left dangling, and a definite “what will happen next?” ending. Also, I like Cheney’s female protagonist a bit more. Her character and strength, while feeling a bit modern, aren’t necessarily set at odds of what is expected of women in 1902. The author manages to work around it because Seria have different conventions than humans. So we don’t get much tension generated because she’s trying to be thought of as equal to men. Oriana is quite at ease with her femininity, and all the weakness and strength that implies. This allows the author to explore other questions about how we fit into society.
The conclusion: The Golden City is an enjoyable read and a very solid entry into the romantic, historical fantasy genre. It’s a great first book in a series that has a lot of potential. I look forward to reading the second one.