Review: The Seat of Magic

Seat of MagicJ. Kathleen Cheney, The Seat of Magic

Two weeks after the events of The Golden City, Duilio is missing Oriana and getting slightly worried: he’s had no word from her since she left his house for her sereia homeland. But he has plenty of distractions to occupy his mind: it seems that someone is killing prostitutes in the Golden City without leaving a visible mark on their corpses. And someone — the same person, or someone else? — is murdering nonhuman individuals and removing their magical body parts. As Duilio and his cousin Joaquim investigate these crimes, they once again uncover dark magic and a plot that threatens the very existence of Northern Portugal. Meanwhile, Oriana learns some shocking information about her family and realizes that her own past may be directly connected to the conspiracy Duilio is uncovering. Together, Oriana and Duilio must act to prevent a political catastrophe — and also finally to address their feelings for one another.

I liked but didn’t love the first book in this series, and I find myself feeling the same way about this installment. I probably prefer it slightly to The Golden City because there’s less exposition about the world and the major characters. I also think the mystery plots are a little tighter and better integrated with each other. My favorite part of this book was Duilio’s relationship with the infante, who — as brother of the reigning prince and next in line for the throne — is kept under house arrest to prevent a coup. The infante is a fun character, and I enjoy a good political intrigue plot, so I was definitely on board for that storyline. I also liked learning more about Joaquim and getting inside his head a little bit. As in the first book, I think the murder-and-magic stuff is actually the weakest part; but at least it ties in well with the other plot lines in this installment of the series. Finally, I was glad to see how Duilio and Oriana resolved their relationship conflicts. Overall, I’m not racing to pick up the next book, but I do plan to continue with the series at some point.

Review: The Golden City

Golden CityJ. Kathleen Cheney, The Golden City

In an alternate-history version of 1902 Portugal, the country has been divided in half because of differing attitudes to the nonhuman creatures living within its borders. In Northern Portugal, the nonhumans are banned from the Golden City and must remain in their own island territories. Oriana Paredes is a sereia (siren), and she is in the Golden City illegally to spy for her people. As a cover, she works as a companion to Lady Isabel Amaral. When she and Isabel are both kidnapped and trapped underwater to die, Oriana’s heritage allows her to survive. She vows to avenge Isabel’s death and teams up with Duilio Ferreira, an aristocrat with selkie blood and ties to the police. As they investigate the kidnapping, they uncover a much larger conspiracy involving government corruption and dark magic. They also begin to fall in love, but many obstacles stand in the way of their relationship.

I enjoy the historical fantasy genre, and the somewhat unusual setting of early-20th-century Portugal inspired me to pick up this book. I liked the book overall, but the world-building is not particularly strong. There are a few passages of exposition near the beginning, in which the author tries to explain the alternate history, the nonhuman races, and the social structure of the Golden City, but it’s all a little confusing and muddled. People who pick up this book because they want to read about selkies and sirens will likely be disappointed, because the novel doesn’t explore the nonhuman cultures in any real depth. On the other hand, people who like “fantasies of manners” will probably enjoy the book overall, as I did. I found the plot a bit overwhelming, but I liked the interactions between Oriana and Duilio, and I look forward to reading more about them in the sequels.

Review: The Lure of the Moonflower

Lure of the Moonflower, TheLauren Willig, The Lure of the Moonflower

***Warning: Possible spoilers for previous books in the series!***

This last installment of the Pink Carnation series finally tells the story of the Pink Carnation herself, Miss Jane Wooliston. It’s 1807, and Napoleon’s armies have invaded Portugal. Officially, the Portuguese royal family have departed for South America; unofficially, the mad Queen Maria is still in the country, providing a focal point for the Portuguese resistance. If the French capture Queen Maria, it will be a decisive victory for Napoleon, so Jane is determined to prevent it by finding her first. But since she is ignorant of both the Portuguese language and the country’s terrain, she’ll need the help of Jack Reid, otherwise known as the Moonflower. Jack, the black sheep of the Reid family, has spied for many nations other than his own, including France. Can Jane trust him not to betray her? And when Jack meets Jane, he’s astonished to discover that the Pink Carnation is a demure young Englishwoman. Can he trust her to maintain her composure — especially when her former lover, a French spy known as the Gardener, is also on Queen Maria’s trail?

I’ve been a fan of the Pink Carnation series ever since the first book, so of course I was eagerly anticipating the final installment. I was especially excited to see that Jane was paired with Jack Reid: they have good chemistry and a believable conflict, as they are both accomplished spies who have trouble trusting each other and showing any hint of vulnerability. Their romance is the main focus of the book, with the spy plot largely being an excuse to get them together — which is fine by me, since I just wanted to see a satisfying ending for these characters whom I’ve grown to love over the course of the series. I do have some complaints, however, mostly because of the stories left untold. For example, we get a little bit of Jane’s romance with the Gardener, but that really should have been its own book. There are also a few minor characters from the series that I wish had gotten more closure. But Willig does include an afterword where she explains her decision to end the series here and gives a little “Where are they now?” update on all her recurring characters. So overall, I think this was a worthy ending to a delightful series, and I look forward to re-reading all the books one of these days!

Review: The Spanish Bride

Spanish Bride, TheGeorgette Heyer, The Spanish Bride

Brigade-Major Harry Smith is a Rifleman in Wellington’s army, fighting Napoleon’s forces in Spain and Portugal. He participates in the Siege of Badajos, a long and drawn-out battle that results in plunder, rape, and violence when the allied British and Portuguese soldiers finally conquer the town. As Harry tries to maintain order and discipline, he is approached by two Spanish women who are seeking protection from the carnage within the city. As soon as he lays eyes on the younger of the women, Juana, he falls instantly in love with her, and she with him. Against the advice of Harry’s comrades, they marry immediately, and Juana accompanies her husband throughout the rest of the Peninsular campaign. As she “follows the drum” and experiences life as a soldier, she demonstrates the courage and fiery temperament that make her a perfect match for Harry. Together, the Smiths witness history as they eventually see Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo.

I am a huge fan of Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances, but I found that I had to approach this book with entirely different expectations. Although the novel features two young, passionate lovers, it is much more about military history than it is about romance. Harry and Juana Smith were actual historical figures, and Heyer got most of her information from Harry’s journals, as well as from other comtemporary accounts including Wellington’s own dispatches. As a result, there is a lot of great historical detail in the book, but not a lot of plot or character development. While Harry and Juana are very vivid characters, their journey is not the focus of the book. I think the trick to enjoying The Spanish Bride is viewing it as a work of military history with a few romantic touches. If you approach it that way, you’ll find it very readable and entertaining. But if you go into it expecting a tale of romance and suspense with the Napoleonic Wars as a backdrop, you’ll find it extremely dull! So overall, I’d recommend this book if you’re interested in the time period, but you have to adjust your expectations.