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The Golden City by J. Kathleen Cheney

The Golden City by J. Kathleen Cheney
Book Name: The Golden City
Author: J. Kathleen Cheney
Publisher(s): Roc (US)
Formatt: Paperback / Ebook
Genre(s): Fantasy
Release Date: November 5, 2013 (US)

Historical fantasy is something of a weakness of mine. I love anything that combines magic and history, especially when that magic actually has an effect on history. My first reviews for this site were about a series of books set during the years preceding the American Revolution, and now I’ve stumbled across a series set in Portugal of 1900, one which departs much more dramatically from history as we know it. While D. B. Jackson’s Boston was largely recognizable, J. Kathleen Cheney’s Portugal is wildly different from any Portugal I’m familiar with.

I will freely admit that I don’t have the firmest grasp of Portuguese history, and so some of the more political plots to the novel had me a bit lost. I didn’t entirely follow the history of there now being two separate Portugals, but it was very easy to grasp the politics that weren’t so closely rooted to the ordinary world. I don’t necessarily need to follow the intricacies of royal politics to understand that nonhuman creatures are banned from the Golden City, where the novel takes place.

This, naturally, causes some problems for the two protagonists of the novel. Oriana Paredes is a sereia – more familiarly called a siren – and Duilio Ferreira is half-selkie (on his mother’s side). The two of them would face a great deal of trouble if the truth were known. The trouble would only increase considering their respective jobs. Duilio works for the police, putting his skills as a seer to use in solving crimes, while Oriana is a spy working for the sereia government, though she has been masquerading as a lady’s maid, which is the part of her job which gets her into trouble.

Oriana has been serving as lady’s maid to Isabel Amaral, doing everything a lady’s maid ought to do, including helping her lady to elope with the man her cousin is betrothed to. The novel opens with the two of them planning to sneak away in the middle of the night. Everything has already been arranged, but when the two of them go out to prepare for the rendezvous, Isabel and Oriana are attacked and drugged. When she wakes, Oriana finds herself in what looks like the dining room of an upside-down house, one which is rapidly filling with water. Oriana, being a sereia, has gills; Isabel does not. Oriana is the only one of the two to escape, and she leaves determined to find out who killed her friend.

It won’t be an easy task. The place where Oriana woke is an art installation called The City Under the Sea, made up of replicas of the houses of wealthy people of The Golden City, all suspended upside-down in the ocean. No one knows who has commissioned the art, or even who created it, only that new houses appear regularly. Oriana, however, knows something more: the houses are kept afloat by magic, though not the magic that has ostensibly been used on them. The magic truly keeping the houses afloat draws on death, and the house where Isabel died is an exact copy of the Amaral house.

Oriana’s investigations bring her into contact with Duilio, and the two of them join forces, though Oriana does not entirely trust him at first. After all, he works for the city’s police, and if he decides to reveal that she is a sereia, she could be sent into exile before managing to learn who killed her friend and why. However, she finds she must at least try to trust him, as he is the best chance she has at justice.

The relationship between Oriana and Duilio was one of my favorite parts of the novel, even more than the systems of magic and international politics woven into the plot. While I could tell that the two of them would very likely be romantically involved – with a set-up like that, it would be impossible for them not to – their relationship never felt contrived or forced. It evolved naturally over the course of the book, even though the action took place over the space of a few weeks. The two of them together are a joy to read.

This isn’t to say that the magic and international politics paled in comparison to Oriana and Duilio. In fact the contrary is true: Both of them are wonderfully set up, and I was fascinated by both. Sirens and selkies are not the only magical creatures to live in this world. There are witches as well, and seers, both of which are traits passed down by blood. This isn’t a world where magic can solve all problems, or even most. It has strict rules and limitations, and even a seer like Duilio can only get hints about what might or might not happen in the future. The fact that there are these rules, and that they are so firmly entrenched in this world, makes the book that much more enjoyable. After all, there isn’t much that’s better than a system of magic that feels like it could be real.

One of those things that is better, though, is the politics of an alternate universe. When that alternate universe is influenced by magic, things get even more interesting, and magic is so much a part of this particular universe that laws against it have become a familiar part of society. There’s far more to the politics of the Golden City than just the magic, though. There’s a mad prince and the danger of a coup, and even without fully understanding the political situation, I could grasp enough to enjoy the book.

For anyone seeking a historical fantasy which sets a very different spin on our world, you don’t need to look any further than The Golden City.


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