I was so excited about this book! An alternate version of 1902 Portugal! Mermaids! Selkies (a bit confusing, that, Portugal isn't exactly known for its seal population... but it's fantasy!)! Spies! Romance!
It was shaping up to be one of those books I devour in less than a day!
But it took me over a week to finish this book...
Anyone who knows anything about Portuguese history, or Portuguese society at the beginning of the 20th century, or anyone who has read anything about the mythology present in Os Lusíadas, is in for some extremely frustrating reading.
I was so confused at all the changes made to Portugal's history from the very beginning of the book - I don't mind change - this is, after all, alternate history, but it needs to be very skilfully explained, from the start, how, why, and when these changes came to pass. It is revealed throughout the book (first attempt at it around 14%) which is so frustrating I can't even begin to expound on it!
I ended up going to the author's blog in search of an answer - which is never a good sign, if a reader has to go read the author's blog posts because the book is not making sense.
As it is, things are explained in this post by J. Kathleen Cheney.
Basically, the events in Os Lusíadas were real - except not really - the book makes a big deal about the Portuguese Sailors finding the sereias, and how they're real, ignoring the fact that they were nymphs and if Os Lusíadas were to be taken as fact we'd have to have known about them forever, since Camões credits the Tágides (the nymphs of the river Tagus) as his inspiration.
Anyway, by the time of the Inquisition, witchery is accepted but witchcraft is forbidden. Which... was never really how the Inquisition worked, but it's fantasy, so okay. Since there are seers among the Jesuits, Dom Sebastião is warned against going into the Battle of Alcácer Quibir.
...pretty sure he was warned by just about everyone, but, being so determined to prove how ~manly~ he was (Totally not gay, you guys! Even though he was frequently found cruising the woods, and vanishing into the dunes with young attractive male company and then making up stories about how they "were hunting" which is why they were found embracing tenderly and unclothed... but I digress).
Instead, Dom Sebastião, in spite of being an incredible misogynist, and having no interest whatsoever in the ladies, and allegedly suffering from gonorrhoea, gets married like a good little king, has issue, and Portugal goes on being independent from Spain.
Not that it did us any good because we ended up splitting the kingdom into Northern and Southern Portugal later on, in an alternate take of the Liberal Wars between Dom Pedro and Dom Miguel, except with two other guys with different names. This is a bit... stupid. I mean, we're not a big country - we're what, about 92000 km2? It's like trying to divide a chewed piece of gum, let's be real.
But anyway, Southern Portugal is all about progress, and Northern Portugal, where the titular Golden City (read: Oporto) is located, is all about the church and hating mythical beings.
Also we lost all our colonies ages ago (even Nagasaki, which was never ours to begin with?), thus erasing the whole Colonial War because I guess that's not important?
But now that the whole setting is explained we're free to be stumped by all the inaccuracies. The author, in one of her posts, mentioned how upsetting it is to see readers mention the author's mistakes in reviews, since the author is unable to correct them at that moment in time. I'm sincerely sorry if this upsets her, but this is pertinent information for other readers - any Portuguese reader is going to be completely incapable of getting into this book because the mistakes are so jarring to us. Any other reader, feel free to ignore this, I suppose, when you're not familiar with something it doesn't hinder the reading experience.
If the Portuguese reader managed to keep reading without previous historical events being promptly explained (I hope my review will allow them to, knowing from the start what happened, enjoy this book better than I did), the character's names and the way they address each other - in fact the whole way Portuguese society is portrayed, will be very frustrating.
I know the author has read Eça de Queiroz, so I'm confused as to why the characters act like British people in a Regency novel... at the risk of sounding unpatriotic (newsflash: I don't care) if you're writing about Portuguese society be it today, at the turn of the century, or even further back, you have to go deep into the small-mindness, the pettiness, the hypocritical piety, the embarrassing attempts to seem worldly, the inability to mind one's own business. Mind you, these are bad things, but they're who we are and when written right they can be somewhat endearing (again, see Eça de Queiroz).
As it is, nothing anyone said, did, or was, ringed true.
This wasn't helped by the inaccurate naming choices.
The author mentioned in one post how Duilio, one of the main characters, was misspelled, since it should be Duílio, with an acute accent. She reasoned that since Portugal has been through quite a few Orthographic Agreements, his name could have been spelled like that. I ask: why try to come up with a justification instead of writing it the way you know is right?
But at least Duilio is explained...
There is a family named Pereira de Santos (instead of Pereira dos Santos), Queirós instead of Queiroz (see, Melo, further ahead), Pimental instead of Pimentel. There is a Constancia instead of Constância, an Eusebio instead of Eusébio, a Tomas instead of Tomás, a Gardineiro instead of Jardineiro, and most importantly a Paolo instead of Paulo and a Melo instead of Mello.
Most importantly because of these passages from the book:
Duilio was tempted to ask which other Paolo Silva it might be, but there were probably a hundred other men in the city with a name that common.
...Or zero? Because Paolo is not a Portuguese name? It's Paulo Silva? I appreciate that the author, in search of common names, searched for them in facebook to see how often they popped up - but bear in mind: Brazilian people have Portuguese names too, and they don't follow the same naming conventions. So you can have a million Paolo Silvas. But they're not likely to be Portuguese born and bred.
Maria Melo, a name so commonplace that it meant nothing
This Maria Melo must be our saboteur or working with him, but there have to be a thousand women with that name in this city.
Melo, in 1902, would be very uncommon - at the time it would be Mello, it only became Melo with the Portuguese Language Orthographic Agreement of 1945.
Then you have unmarried women being consistently addressed by Miss "last name". Unmarried women would be addressed as Miss/Menina "first name", and female servants by first name only, unless they were a nanny or a teacher, in which case you would address them by "Nanny" or "Teacher" followed, or not, by their first name. So all of this Miss Paredes, instead of Oriana or Miss Oriana, just pulls the reader out of the story because you're constantly noticing how wrong it is.
As I said, these inaccuracies could be easily ignored if the reader is not familiar with Portuguese society, language, or history. But for Portuguese readers they're just gigantic stones in our path, which make getting into the story practically impossible.
Now for the story itself. Perhaps I'm not the best person to judge it, since, as I have mentioned, I just could not get into it for all the reasons above. But I suppose that, had it been set in another country, with other names, and other costumes, it would have been somewhat entertaining.
There are a few inconsistencies, such as male sereias being inferior in sereia society, but Oriana having a male superior. And it was a bit slow moving and, romantically, not resolved - probably because it'll see further development in books 2 and 3.
So, this did not work for me at all. But if, as I said, you're not familiar with anything to do with Portugal, go ahead, you might enjoy it.
J. Kathleen Cheney's official site
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