The Great Mogul diamond, a slave-catching scam and a plot to produce opium in America stir the melodramatic pot in Swerling’s riotous tale of New York City, circa 1814.
In her sequel to City of Dreams, Swerling follows the exploits of Joyful Turner, a skilled surgeon who, after losing a hand to a cannonball during a naval battle, must find a new occupation. When cousin Andrew, also a surgeon, reveals a treasure map left by Joyful’s late father Morgan, Joyful tracks down Morgan’s comrade-in-arms, Finbar O’Toole, who’s just successfully skippered Gornt Blakeman’s ship the Canton Star, loaded with tea, silks and other riches of the East, past a British blockade. Blakeman, Joyful and Joyful’s cousin “Bastard” Devrey vie to control the China trade, but all three men face formidable competition from Jacob Astor. With no livelihood (besides his stake in a bordello/casino, the Dancing Knave), Joyful cannot formally court Manon Vionne, the lovely Huguenot whose father, Maurice, a jeweler, appraises Blakeman’s giant diamond, smuggled into the city aboard the Star. Also smuggled ashore, unbeknownst to Blakeman, is Thumbless Wu, a Cantonese merchant hoping to grow opium poppies in Manhattan. Dancing Knave’s madame, Delight Higgins, loves Joyful (who doesn’t realize she’s his long-lost niece’s former slave) but knows he’s obsessed with Manon. Blakeman resents Joyful’s business incursions and seeks Manon for himself. When she resists, her father confines her to quarters, curtailing her secret trysts with Joyful. Meanwhile, Joyful’s nephew concocts a mighty profitable elixir of laudanum. The ever-shifting alliances defy disentanglement, and some plotlines beggar belief: A widow in reduced circumstances teams up with a pirate to nab free blacks and collect runaway slave bounties, and Blakeman hopes his diamond will prompt the Holy Roman Emperor to back New York’s secession from the Union. Propelled by brisk, evocative language, the story stalls whenever Swerling cuts to the British army’s assault on Washington—necessary exposition perhaps, but an irritating detour from the excitement in New York.
Good fun, duly grounded in history.