This is historical fantasy set in Portugal, a rare enough setting that I couldn’t resist it.
The Golden City by J. Kathleen Cheney. ROC Penguin Group, 2013.
Oriana Paredes is a sereia, a sea person, undercover in the Golden City, where all magical beings are illegal. She’s there as a spy, and her cover is working as a companion to the high-born Isabel Amaral. But Isabel’s romantic plans of elopement turn to tragedy when she and Oriana, dressed in servants’ clothes, are kidnapped. Both are chained under water and left to drown, but Oriana is unable to break free in time to get Isabel to the surface. Desperate for vengeance, she turns to police consultant Duilio Ferrera, who has his own secrets to keep and his own mystery to solve: finding his selkie mother’s stolen pelt. Duilio has been looking into pairs of missing servants from the great houses; Oriana knows first-hand that there are corpses inside the much-admired City under the Sea art installation with replicas of famous houses floating in the water. Together, they must try to uncover the necromancy behind the art, a dark corruption reaching to the highest levels of government. They do so fighting their growing attraction to each other, with class differences, magical race conflicts, and the duty at hand all keeping the action to a lot of smolder and very little action.
I’d really put my name on the list once I saw mermaids and Portugal (late 19th to early 20th century by feel), but now this put together with my reading of Beka Cooper is starting to look like a fantasy mystery trend. My mother got to it before me, and also enjoyed it, but was a little concerned about the content until I told her that it is an adult novel. I don’t think most teens would have an issue with the content, though: some nudity, discussions of sexuality and several violent incidents. My only real issue is a scene where Duilio deliberately breaks in on Oriana in the bathtub, unacceptable by both modern standards and the much stricter standards of modesty in the time period in the book. Though Oriana does call him out on it, and sereia aren’t as modest as humans, this reinforces uncomfortable gender patterns, and he got off with it much too easily. Epic Quests for Vengeance rarely work well for me, but while Oriana says she’s looking for vengeance, her efforts are important to prevent future deaths as well. Here, the lovingly described setting, magical elements, mystery, and buried passion all work together to make a captivating story. I’ll definitely be looking for the sequel coming out in July.