Had Isabel been killed merely for the sake of this...artwork? Had others awakened in the darkness only to realize, like Isabel, that their death was seeping in about them?

The Golden City, 1902. Oriana Paredes is a companion in the employ of the beautiful and kindhearted Lady Isabel Amaral, who is not only is Isabel Oriana’s mistress, but a dear friend. Little does Isabel (or the aristocratic Amaral family) know that Oriana is actually a spy. Not just a spy, but a sereia—a siren, a creature of the sea, with delicate webbing between her fingers, gills on her neck and an ability to breathe underwater. For years, all magical creatures, from selkies to sereia, have been exiled from the Golden City (hence, the need for spies). Oriana’s position as cherished friend and companion to Isabel is the perfect cover, as it means she is able to learn of any royal plans that may cause her people harm.

But one night, all of that changes. Isabel convinces Oriana to help her elope, but instead of escaping to a happy (if scandalous) marriage in Paris, the women are kidnapped and left to drown in an eerie underwater tableau. Oriana survives the murky river, thanks to her sereia nature, but her beloved employer and friend Isabel, however, is not so lucky. It turns out that Isabel is just one of many such drownings—sacrifices for an artist’s twisted magic in the waters of the Golden City. Oriana’s path to avenge her friend’s death crosses with that of nobleman Duilio Ferreira, who just happens to be a magical creature himself (a selkie), with a limited gift of premonition—and an intuition that tells him he is meant to find Oriana. Together, Oriana and Duilio set out to uncover the reason behind the Golden City murders, and discover a far greater evil in their wake.

J. Kathleen Cheney’s The Golden City sounds like it has some potential, doesn’t it? Set in an alternate version of turn-of-the-century Portugal, featuring a siren spy for a protagonist, with watery graves disguised as an aquatic art installation?! Yes, please! In reality, however, The Golden City is a mishmash of recycled Edwardian-ish fantasy, with poorly constructed fantasy elements, lukewarm characters and, most damningly, an utterly unremarkable plot. (Sorry Kirkus, I disagree with your review—although I do agree that far too much time is spent on Oriana’s webbed fingers. EGADS, woman! Keep the damned mittens on!)

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A book set in an alternate vision of 1902 Portugal—one with seal-people and mermaids, no less!—should be a huge selling point for The Golden City. Instead, other than a few street names, the eponymous City is bizarrely interchangeable with any number of vaguely written Western European cities—this story could have been set in London, or Paris, or Venice. Similarly, the fantasy elements of the book—namely, the magical abilities of its main characters, and the enchantment that keeps the submerged city afloat—are barely developed or differentiated from any other number of tales about human shapeshifter creatures of the sea. Any examination of fantasy elements in City is entirely superficial. For example, Oriana is always obsessed with the webbing between her fingers or the dryness of her gills, meanwhile Duilio ineptly attempts to use his power of foresight and repeatedly thinks to himself how sad it is that his mother’s selkie skin was stolen.

And, on the subject of characters, both Oriana and Duilio are as bland and predictable as the other elements of the novel. Oriana is perhaps the worst spy in the history of spies. (Other than ineptly spying on her superior, she doesn’t actually do anything spylike in the book.) Of course, Oriana and Duilio are a romantic pair, too—as the plot slowly plods along, the tepid, telegraphed romance develops between the two protagonists. This is to say nothing of the SUPER CREEPY MOMENT when Duilio (who has just hired Oriana as a servant, thanks to his premonition about her beautiful big eyes and teeny tiny waist), hears her get into the bathtub in his house, and then UNLOCKS THE DOOR AND OGLES HER NAKEDNESS. No, I’m not kidding. That happens. Ostensibly he does that to prove to himself that she’s sereia, but c’mon, that’s not cool.

This all reads pretty harshly, doesn’t it? Perhaps that harshness isn’t entirely fair. In truth, The Golden City is...fine. The writing is competent, and though the mystery element is a yawn, the story basically makes sense, and progresses in a linear, logical fashion. The thing is, there’s nothing particularly special, or memorable, or even really entertaining about The Golden City. And that is the most damning thing about Cheney’s novel—the fact that the book is so headdeskingly banal. It’s not bad, it’s just utterly bland, unoriginal and eminently forgettable.

In Book Smugglerish, an apathetic 5 mermaid dorsal stripes out of 10.

Thea James and Ana Grilo are The Book Smugglers, a website for speculative fiction and YA. You can also find them onTwitter.