Paperback, 384 pages
Published November 5th 2013 by Roc Trade
It is not often that I come across a fantasy novel set in a country that is not England or a derivative of it therefore I was quite excited when I realized that The Golden City is set in an alternate Portugal where the princes are crazy (as they are wont to be) and magical sea beings walk amidst the common folk. The main character, Oriana, is a sereia which is a fancy way of saying siren who is risking her life to be in the titular golden city to spy for her country. She and her kind have been outlawed in the city ever since someone prophesied that it would be one of Oriana’s people who would bring an end to the crazy prince’s reign. One can understand why this would cause him distress.
Anyway, so Oriana is disguised as a lady’s attendant/friend/chaperone/whatever the official title is and when the story opens, we see her in the middle of preparing her mistress to elope and meet her lover at a designated point. Only that never happens as Oriana, along with her mistress, is captured and left in a sealed house floating in the sea to die. Oriana with her ability to breathe underwater survives, her mistress is not that lucky.
What follows is an interesting journey in which Oriana and her ally, Duilio, investigate the art installation which is a miniature installation of a street of houses (mansions really) half-submerged in the sea. Duilio and Oriana suspect that each house contains two corpses and that someone (or many someones) are harvesting the energy of the sacrifices (which is what Oriana was supposed to be).
What I really liked about the novel is the lack of romanticizing of the supernatural characters. Oriana’s trouble hiding her gills and her webbed fingers are authentic as is the discomfort she feels wearing gloves in the heat. Duilio is pretty underwhelming as a love interest but I found that interesting because though he is not as testosterone-inclined as his counterparts, he has this nice depth to him that worked well considering his role in the novel. The world building could have been because as I have said, the setting is different and I feel that more could have been done to delineate that difference. I wanted more of the traditions and expressions that give different cultures their particular flavors. Ultimately, I did enjoy the novel. I liked the ambiguous nature of the ending that will lead perfectly to the sequel whenever it comes out. I look forward to learning what happens to Oriana and Duilio next.