The Golden City: J. Kathleen Cheney

★★★

Since entering the Amaral family’s service as companion to their self-willed daughter Isabel, Oriana Paredes has been drawn into more than a few of her employer’s whims. Isabel’s most recent plan, however, casts all the rest into shadow: she has arranged to elope to Paris with Marianus Efisio, her cousin’s fiance. Despite disapproving of the match, Oriana has decided to accompany Isabel, to protect her as far as possible on this threshold of her new life. And yet it transpires that it isn’t social scandal or even Efisio himself that Isabel has to fear.

As the two young women creep out of Isabel’s house to their rendezvous with Efisio’s coachman, they are snatched, bound and beaten unconscious. When Oriana comes round, she finds herself and Isabel trapped in a wooden room which is slowly filling with water, doomed to drowning. There is no time to save Isabel; but fortunately Oriana Paredes isn’t so easily dealt with. Beneath her sober servant’s clothes, she has been concealing a secret known only to Isabel and a handful of others: she is a sereia, a siren, and for two years she has been a spy among the Portuguese elite, trying to protect what remains of her people’s culture from the expansionist ambitions of the ruling party. Managing to free herself from her watery prison, Oriana rapidly discovers that there is more going on beneath the placid surface of the Golden City than she had ever anticipated.

What is the purpose of the elaborate City under the Sea, a submarine artwork reproducing the mansions of the city’s most noble families? Why were Oriana and Isabel trapped inside the replica of Isabel’s own home? What is the meaning of the mysterious writing that appears at the moment of Isabel’s death? And, most importantly, how many people are involved in this enterprise? Having thwarted the plan for her own death, can Oriana even trust her fellow spies? Determined to avenge Isabel, Oriana sets out to solve what she can of the mystery; and she will soon find that she isn’t the only one asking questions. The City’s police force have noted a worrying number of servants going missing, and their investigations – helped by the wealthy amateur investigator Duilio Ferreira – will bring them directly into Oriana’s path.

As you know, my favourite fantasies are those which draw on settings and periods in our own history and present them through the glass of an alternate universe – and Cheney’s novel takes place in an alternate Portugal at the turn of the 20th century. For some reason I’d imagined it would take place in a more conventional medieval-style setting, so I was surprised and rather delighted to find such a different kind of world, in which trains, trams and a police force exist alongside some unusual fantasy elements.

Ironically, despite living on an island, I’m not very familiar with the folklore of the sea and so Cheney’s imagined world felt very fresh and new. Although marginalised and officially forbidden to set foot in the City (hence the secrecy of Oriana’s assignment), there are three races of sea-people: sereia, or sirens, who have two legs rather than tails, but can only move among humans if they hide their gills and webbed fingers; selkies, who are usually in seal-form, but can throw off their pelts to appear human; and otter-people, whom we haven’t yet seen much of. Oriana is our link into the sereia culture; while Duilio is concealing his own secret: he is half-selkie, and his selkie mother has been tragically reduced to a permanent human state thanks to the theft of her pelt, which leaves her pining for the sea she can never return to.

Being unfamiliar with the legends themselves, I’m not sure how much Cheney has invented and how much she has simply woven in from existing folklore. However, the sereia and selkies feel as if they come from richly-drawn, organically-developed cultures, down to Cheney’s historical explanation of the enmity between humans and sereia, as a result of Vasco da Gama’s discovery of the sereia islands. (Perhaps in the next book we’ll find out a little more about the sereia at home.) I’m equally unfamiliar with the historical setting: I know absolutely nothing about the history of Portugal in this period, and I’m sure that if I did know more I’d have been able to appreciate another layer of allusions and references that escape me at present.

Having said that, it might be that knowing too much is a problem: there’s one interesting critical review on Goodreads that takes issue with some divergences from historical fact. While this throws some light on some of the context, and I’ll defend anyone’s right to be pedantic about pure historical fiction, I’d stress that this is an alternate-universe fantasy. So, while you might expect allusions to our own world, an author isn’t bound to follow fact or reality beyond the broadest hint of the setting.

The idea of the City under the Sea was another thing that appealed to me – I always enjoy it when art plays a central role in a book – and, though I don’t think we’ve quite heard the last of this plot, it’s an interesting experiment which fits well with the overall feel of the book: half-scientific, half-magical. Things don’t always work quite as smoothly with the human magical side of things, though: I’m still slightly confused about the status and variety of witchcraft in this society. It seems to be forbidden, but within the ranks of the Secret Police (who are meant to be rooting it out), there are several practitioners of it – is it just a case of ‘takes one to know one’?

Something else I noted was that the characters were so consistently polite and proper to one another, as demanded by the period in which the book’s set, that they occasionally risked feeling ever so slightly bland. I was itching to learn more about Duilio’s naughty brother, Alessio, to offer a bit of balance. However, even if I didn’t feel completely emotionally involved by the characters, I was certainly interested enough by the concept and the period and the idea of the artwork that I found it quite hard to tear myself away. I haven’t read many fantasies set in a more modern, industrial or post-industrial period, so I can only say that the setting reminded me slightly of G.W. Dahlquist’s deliciously bizarre The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters, although The Golden City isn’t quite as elaborate.

It’s a first taste of a world which evidently has a lot more backstory and richness to offer up, and although I think I’m right in saying that it’s a debut novel, it has a poise and mastery which belies that. It’ll probably appeal equally to historical mystery and fantasy fans, with just enough speculative elements to add spice, and some non-intrusive romance thrown in for good measure. And I am glad to say that it has a strong, motivated heroine; and you all know how much I like those. The reviews on Amazon and Goodreads have been overwhelmingly positive so far, and I suspect that this will do quite well among teenage readers even though it’s not a young-adult book. By that, I mean that if I’d come to this in my late teens, I would have been thoroughly intoxicated with it. Nowadays I tend to prefer a little more grit and slightly meatier characters, but even so this is light, refreshing and full of a tantalising blend of magic and mythology.

And it’s got an absolutely stunning cover which (ahem), as you know, is something that I take very seriously here at The Idle Woman. I’d be very interested to know if anyone else dips into this, especially if you’re knowledgeable enough about selkie folklore / Portuguese history to tell me about some of the links and references I might have missed out on.

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I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review.

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