The Golden City – J. Kathleen Cheney

About the Book

For two years, Oriana Paredes has been a spy among the social elite of the Golden City, reporting back to her people, the sereia, sea folk banned from the city’s shores….

When her employer and only confidante decides to elope, Oriana agrees to accompany her to Paris. But before they can depart, the two women are abducted and left to drown. Trapped beneath the waves, Oriana’s heritage allows her to survive while she is forced to watch her only friend die.

Vowing vengeance, Oriana crosses paths with Duilio Ferreira—a police consultant who has been investigating the disappearance of a string of servants from the city’s wealthiest homes. Duilio also has a secret: He is a seer and his gifts have led him to Oriana.

Bound by their secrets, not trusting each other completely yet having no choice but to work together, Oriana and Duilio must expose a twisted plot of magic so dark that it could cause the very fabric of history to come undone….

384 pages (paperback)
Published on: November 5, 2013
Published by Roc Trade
Author’s webpage

This book was sent for my review by the publisher.

I’m on some sort of weird alternative history kick right now. Any alternative history books that come into my house are read almost instantly. This one flowed into my house while I was out of town. I saw the cover, and that it was set in Portugal (seriously, how many books have you read in Portugal?) and that pretty much sealed the deal. Game over. Book read.

The Golden City isn’t some man-meets-woman romance set in a historical period, though you might expect something along those lines from the cover. While romantic tension does grow throughout the book, the romance always stays subtle and on the back burner, giving way to an actual plot (Thank you, Cheney.). Another difference that readers might note right away is how much darker this is than what you’d probably expect. The book starts out with a murder. It’s not hinted at or discovered, it’s witnessed, and the person who dies is someone the protagonist Oriana cares about.

Oriana is an interesting protagonist in the fact that she’s rather deep and fleshed out. She’s also unique in the fact that she’s sereia (read: selkie), all of whom are banned from Portugal. There are other water creatures peppered throughout the book, and they aren’t some secret hidden from society. No, the world knows that they exist, so the plot doesn’t get derailed with any, “I had no idea the world was this damn weird” moments while characters struggle with their new reality. Oriana, however, is trained to be a spy for her people. She has integrated herself into high society, but the murder at the start of the book really derails all of her plans. She sets out to discover the who and the why behind it all, and that’s really where your book starts. Along for the ride is Duilio, who is a weak seer, and a nice character balance for the book.

The plot is basically what you’d expect it to be. There is a murder, a huge conspiracy, things are uncovered that are uncomfortable. The breadth and scope are far larger than you’d expect them to be. Perhaps where all of this is unique is the methods that Cheney uses to drive her plot forward. It isn’t just a murder, but a weird artistic display in a river. There isn’t just one dead body, but a whole lot more than that. They aren’t dead because it’s fun to kill people, there’s a really sinister reason behind it all. It really is quite unique when you pay attention to all the details. Despite how tried-and-true all the basics are, the plot itself is rather enthralling.

The characters are interesting in their own ways, more for what they are rather than who they are. For example, Oriana is a sereia, which is a type of creature I really haven’t read much about sereia and what I have read is pretty tropey. Cheney really does away with all the typical boxes a sereia would get shoved into. She goes into the details of what makes Oriana what she is. Oriana has gills, which hurt. She has to wear odd mitts so people won’t see her webbed fingers (which sense vibrations), and thus, the government won’t know what she is. She has dorsal fins. Her eyes are wide, large, and made to see more in dark areas (like under water). It’s interesting. Oriana isn’t just some mythical creature, under Cheney’s development, she’s flesh and blood and her nuances give her an interesting set of challenges she has to learn to work around to blend into society.

While Oriana is an admitted spy, I was never really sure what the point of her spying was. A reason was given early on in the book. She has a handler. Her situation is uncomfortable for numerous reasons, but despite the one line reason readers are given for her being a spy, I never really felt that was a necessary plot thread. Oriana didn’t need to be a spy, it just adds another layer of complexities to her. There really isn’t any point to her spying, and she never really accomplishes anything for her people by doing it. It’s mentioned several times throughout the book, but I never really understood why it was so important other than bluntly driving the plot in several directions.

On the flip side, Duilio was a character that was a lot harder for me to buy into. He’s a seer, but a weak one. He can ask himself specific questions and his gift will give him a yes or no answer. This isn’t a huge problem, but as the case went on and they started learning more about what is happening, I couldn’t help myself but wonder why Duilio didn’t just close himself in a room and ask “Did (person’s name) kill (other person’s name)?” until he got an answer. However, that aside, he has his own unique qualities in the fact that he is looking for something precious that was stolen from his mother that could easily be hung over his family’s head and get them in a lot of painful trouble. He has fewer details than Oriana, and fewer nuances, and probably because of that, he seemed less interesting to me, and less believable.

As I said above, there is romance in this book, but it really develops slowly and naturally, though most readers will predict where the tension will lie. This is perhaps one of the very few books where I haven’t minded the romance budding, or the tension. Like I said, it is natural. It feels right, and Cheney understand that you don’t need to fill your book with soft porn and panting noises to make something sweet and memorable.

My last tiny complaint that I really shouldn’t voice because there’s no real point? There aren’t many books I’ve read set in such a specific time period in Portugal. In fact, this is probably the only one. I really wish the city, the culture of Portugal had been more vibrant and alive. The world is there, and it is interesting, but most of what readers learn is about politics. I never really felt like the city came to life, and in such a unique place, I would have loved it to become another character. That being said, the ending promises and expanded world and an even more unique setting in books to come. While the world building left a little to be desired here, Cheney did enough to make me beyond excited to see what she can create next.

There seem like there are a lot of things I pick on in this book, and there are. It’s not perfect. It’s a far stretch from it. However, it is unique. It is memorable. I absolutely devoured The Golden City in two days flat because I couldn’t stop thinking about it. The plot is fairly standard. The characters have their own set of positives and negatives, but it’s the world, the setting, the cultures and the incredible amount of details and unique takes on old tropes really makes this book shine. I honestly cannot wait to read what Cheney writes next.


4/5 stars


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