Friday, March 20, 2015

Book Review: The Golden City

Look, people. I know there's certain best-practices to use in a book review.  You want to give people a balanced analysis of the whole thing: the plot, the characters, the writing, pacing, worldbuilding, etc.  You don't want to just pick one thing and go nuts about it.  It shouldn't read like a third-grade book report.

Well, this one does, and I'm not sorry. Mainly because it took all my self control not to just write THIS BOOK IS MY MOST FAVORITE fifty times in purple crayon. I'm absolutely serious here: if you liked the characters in Sixes, if you enjoyed the worldbuilding or the fishpeople or the manners or the history, go get this one. Do it. I'll wait.

The Golden City
by J. Kathleen Cheney

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....

I'm sorry, I can't.  I don't have any clever hook to put here.  I just absolutely love this book.

More specifically, I love Oriana.

Most-specifically, I did not realize until now how monstrously thirsty I was to see a heroine – hell, a character of any gender – who is what I can only call "dauntlessly plain."  Like, she's perfectly intelligent, but not a genius.  She's not "feisty".  She's not snarky, or witty, or gorgeous-but-doesn't-know-it. She's not even fearless – and with good reason, because there's plenty for her to be afraid of here.  Her only superpower, if you want to call it that, is her refusal to quit: somebody has killed her mistress, and now there's nothing for it but to smooth her skirts and go after them.

Oh, and also she's a sereia, with some awesomesweet fish-lady powers.  That's neat too.

But honestly, I would have loved this book just as much even if it had been straight-up historical fiction, because the characters are just so unrelentingly SOLID.  Oriana and Duilio and 95% of the minor characters are good, thoughtful, sensible people, the kind who have the wisdom and emotional maturity to understand when others have their best interests at heart, and reciprocate their trust.  And that's what keeps a classic trope from becoming a clich√©. There are past tragedies, but they're not treated as Torturous Dark Secrets. There's slowly growing interest/attraction between the two leads, but no "what is this sudden fire in my loins" insta-love. There are human characters with human limitations, but nobody has to be an irrational idiot to make the plot work.

And like... maybe it's just cuz I'm reading from the perspective of a writer, but I can't tell you how much I admire that.  It takes absolute, iron-clad skill and confidence to do what Cheney has done here.  To spend your whole first chapter with nothing more dramatic than a pair of women packing clothes and counting petticoats – and yet make it an important, compelling scene.  To craft a relationship strong enough that neither character needs to go into dramatics to keep it interesting.  To take the "every protagonist must have a crucial flaw" rule and snap it over your knee.

Anyway, I know no book is perfect, and I'm sure there are legitimate nits to pick somewhere in here, but frankly I don't care enough to go looking for them.  The characters in this book have all of what I love most about the people in my own life – grace, grit, compassion, and maturity – and, as in my own life, my only real regret is that I didn't get to know them sooner.

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My favorite bit:

"My people tend to think of selkies as..." Her lips pressed into a thin line.

Duilio raised one brow as he opened the carriage door. "As?"

"Well, rather savage," she admitted. "They choose to live on the sea rather than in homes, as we do."

He helped her up. "Anything different is barbaric, Miss Paredes. You should see the Scots."

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