An ambitious debut from Cheney: part fantasy, part romance, part police procedural and part love letter to Lisbon in the early 1900s.
Oriana Paredes has webbed fingers, gills on her neck and discoloration on her legs that looks like scales. She is a sereia hailing from unmapped islands off the coast of Portugal; her people are the basis for the legend of mermaids. But in 1902 Lisboa, the golden city of the title, she passes as the human companion to a young gentlewoman, Isabel. The sereia have a fraught history with the Portuguese—they are illegal in the city itself—and Oriana’s role in society is a cover for her real vocation: sereia spy. Spying, however, is lonely and boring until Oriana and Isabel are kidnapped and left in the river for dead. Isabel, sans gills, dies, but Oriana escapes and, in doing so, discovers clues to an elaborate, sinister plot under the guise of a large artwork installation. She exits the river heartbroken, with an eye toward revenge. Within days, Oriana's search connects her to Duilio Ferreira. A gentleman of the city and frequent consultant to the police, he is privately investigating the deadly artwork installation. Duilio is also part selkie—seal person—and convinces Oriana to work with him in solving the mystery. Their mutual trust grows in the process, along with a burgeoning affection, and they are aided by a colorful cast of characters, many with magic powers or mythic backgrounds. Cheney could use more practice determining which details are worthy of explication—Oriana’s webbed fingers are a constant reference, but where the case is concerned, it can be difficult to track who knows what, which of the plethora of details are important and how. But she does a lovely job connecting magical, historical and romantic elements; her Lisboa is a marvelous place to visit, and the installation artwork at the center of the mystery is a creepy, creative plot device.
A diverting read, with plenty of loose ends for a sequel.