Historical fiction has slowly been on the rise—well, within the demographics of my reading material, anyway. There’s just something about a story that integrates fantasy with the history of our world that appeals to me—when it’s done well. And J. Kathleen Cheney’s debut novel, The Golden City, does it exceptionally well.
Set in Portugal at the turn of the twentieth century, The Golden City follows the story of Oriana Paredes, a spy amongst the social elite of the city for her people, the sereia—the mermaids. When her employer and only confidante makes to elope, Oriana tags along. However, not everything goes according to plan, and the two women find themselves abducted and left to drown. Because of her heritage, Oriana is able to survive, but is helpless to save her friend.
Her subsequent quest for vengeance leads her path to cross with that of Duilio Ferreira, a police consultant investigating the disappearance of a string of servants from the wealthiest houses in the city. Duilio also harbors a secret: he is a seer and his gift has led him to Oriana. Though they don’t trust each other completely, they have no choice but to work together—for over the course of their investigations, they uncover evidence of a plot of magic so dark that it threatens the very fabric of history itself.
Fascinating new setting
Do you know how often I read books that are set in Portugal? That’s right, never. My exposure to historical fantasy has taken me to England, France, America, Spain, Germany, Australia, and various countries in South America, but never Portugal. Cheney has created an image of twentieth-century Portugal that just comes alive in the reader’s mind, even for someone relatively unfamiliar with the history of the nation.
And that’s just the start.
Not only did Cheney create a historical Portugal that felt real, she added fantastical elements to the world and the history in such a masterful way that it felt completely organic. Throughout the novel, she gradually unveils more and more of the supernatural world hidden from the majority of humanity, and does so in a way that always leaves you wanting to know more. Her information flow in this regard is simply wonderful, especially for a debut novel.
But wait, there’s more
Not only does the world Cheney has created feel organic and alive, but so, too, do the people who inhabit her world. Cheney’s protagonists, Oriana and Duilio, are very believable characters with quirks and flaws that give them more than two dimensions. Beyond that, they try their utmost to do what they believe to be right, even in the face of being wrong. And that’s a damn good character.
And it’s not just the protagonists. Even the secondary characters have enough to them to populate the world and truly make it come alive. Again, very impressive for a debut novel.
“Please, marm, I want some more”
In The Golden City, Cheney does something that I don’t see in a lot of debut novels, something I classify as a “serious” cliffhanger. While most first novels in a series will hint at things to come, the main purpose of the very endgame of the novel is to wrap up the story presented within the novel. The Golden City features an ending that doesn’t just tie up the plot of the novel, but it jumpstarts the story for the next book. And on top of that, the cliffhanger is layered, containing both plot- and character-centered cliffhangers. Unresolved romantic tension is a fantastic story tool, and one well-utilized here, but I’m a romantic, dangit, and the lack of resolution drove me nuts and left me wanting more.
Why should you read this book?
This book was probably the first debut novel I had a difficult time believing was a debut novel. It was seriously that good, what with a world and characters that just come alive in your mind and a story that doesn’t let up and leaves you begging for more. The Golden City is easily my vote for this year’s best debut novel, and Cheney has made her way to my must-read list.
Garrett received a review copy of The Golden City courtesy of Roc Books.