IMPORTANT BACKGROUND INFO:
The Sinking City is Christine Cohen’s second novel, and it’s set in a reimagined version of Venice, Italy (think of how Nadine Brandes reimagined London in Fawkes, or Russia in Romanov), where magic is interwoven into a historical setting.
The Sinking City is well written and the world feels so real. It follows 16-year-old Liona, who’s life as a Patrician’s daughter has always been normal and pretty enjoyable despite feeling like she’s been held at arms length by her parents. Unfortunately, on her 16th birthday she learns the reason why she’s been held at arms length, and must go on the run from the Seleni (an ancient race of underwater monsters who wield a incredibly powerful water magic).
Disguised as a boy, Liona (now going by Lio), finds work as an assistant to Venice’s most powerful – and unpredictable – magician, Mago Re, helping him by spotting tears, rips or frays in the spells that keep Venice afloat.
Unfortunately, the Seleni realize they’ve been tricked, and start getting revenge by terrorizing Venice, leaving Liona to make a choice – should she give herself up…. Or let Venice sink?
It’s a fascinating, well-written story, and according Christine Cohen (on her website) “The Sinking City is meant to feel more like a fairytale, but not the Disneyfied ones. The ones with fangs.”
WHAT I LIKED:
Most everything? This book reached out, pulled me in, and then made it incredibly hard to climb out of the world Christine Cohen created. I made the mistake of beginning it right before bed, so the hours ticked by while I repeatedly told myself “Just a little further.” When I finally made myself go to bed (after looking at the time and realizing I still had to get up at a decent hour), I actually dreamed I was Liona, on the run from the Seleni.
One of the most notable aspects of this book is how real the world Cohen created seems. Like, if you could slip into it, there wouldn’t be any gaping holes in the infrastructure. The characters she created are pretty human, too.
The moral background of the story seemed to be pretty in line with Scripture (more thoughts on that below).
Nico is an amazing character. He is genuinely kind to everyone without sacrificing truth, a leader who stands up to bullies, and chivalrous.
So is Alyosius. Despite experiencing tragedy, Alyosius doesn’t wear it like an ill-fitting garment. He is loyal, kind and forgiving, eventually sacrificing himself for someone who didn’t deserve it.
Liona’s siblings truly love her, and she loves them. They make sacrifices for each other, fight for each other, and care for each other.
Men are written as men, and women are written as women. Liona uses her brain more than brute force to solve her problems, and with the way popular culture likes to blur gender lines, portraying men as weak and whiny and women as superhumanly tough and strong, it’s refreshing to read a story with solid male and female characters.
A large theme in the story is forgiveness. Liona has to learn to forgive all those who got her into this mess, Alyosious choose to forgive Re, Nico choose to forgive Liona for lying to him, etc. But it’s done in such a way that it’s poignant, and not ridiculous.
Needless to say it was a good story. 🙂
CONTENT CONCERNS/THINGS TO KNOW:
Please note that I read laser focused on looking for content concerns so that I can write this review. It’s going to seem like there are a lot, but often they’re incredibly easy to gloss over or miss, and they’re not as concerning within the context of the story.
I think the author is a Christian… Or at the very least is acquainted with the faith, as her recommended books list has books by Metaxes, Lewis, and a book entitled Christian Heroes Then and Now. The Sinking City was also published through Canon Press, a Christian publishing company serious about faith and equipping Christians to stand firm on what we believe. Christine Cohen is also very into mythology and folklore, and you can see those elements woven into her stories as well.
There isn’t really much reference to her faith in the story, though it’s a solid book with a Biblically moral backdrop.
The historical backdrop is very catholic or orthodox, and references to saints are made. Phrases such as “mother Mary” are used once or twice, and occasionally people pray, thought it’s usually just mentioned. Someone thanks “whichever saint is in charge of well-timed interruptions.” It’s mentioned that the images of saintes turned against walls are meant to ward off evil.
A quotation from The Odyssey says, “Ah, how shameless — the way the mortals blame the gods.”
During a dance, Liona wonders if “the angels look down on us with envy on nights like this? Do they dance together as we do, swaying to the music of the stars and planets?”
Magic is woven into the foundations of this world, literally. Venice is split up into sections, each section managed by a magician and his assistant who make sure that the spells holding Venice up are strong, so that the city doesn’t sink. Magicians also deal with the Seleni, negotiate trades and duel each other (to whomever is humiliated first, not to the death). Street magicians – those not part of the official magicians guild – are considered entertainers. It’s said they can making easy money by entertaining children and reading the fortunes of superstitious adults.
There is a very dark side to this magic (and it’s said to go against the created order), and it’s illustrated through Mago Re. Liona comes across this thing called the Oscuro during her stay at Mago Re’s house. Eventually she learns that it’s a form of dark magic that ages a person and gives Mago Re the extra years. She learns that in Mago Re’s pride, arrogance, and lust for power he wanted to see if he could make it, and though it involved making a deal with a demon, he thought he could control it. Aloysius has been trying to figure out how to exorcise it because he didn’t want “Re to go like that, with his soul bound to a demon, without any chance of redemption.” The climax has them defeating Mago Re as much as the Seleni. Someone wondered if he was going to try bring Aloysius back to life, and he basically admits as much, but nothing happens.
Mago Re almost feeds on power and praise. During a duel he said “we are gods” as he was winning. When he’s in a possessed state, his voice is described as sounding like it’s a hundred voices all at once. Mago Re is eventually freed when the Obscuro is destroyed.
The Seleni are underwater monsters who wield a water magic. It allows them to strip moisture from things, use water as a weapon, destroy other spells, etc. A character talking about the Seleni says “they want to be gods on the earth, as if Calvary never happened.”
A girl says that when she and her little sister were younger they thought humming a certain song would keep evil spirits away.
It’s said that someone, by committing suicide (the person actually didn’t – they faked their death) choose eternal damnation.
Someone wonders if their mother invited “every member of the great council, as well as their wives, mistresses, and firstborn sons.”
It’s said that someone’s “eyes rake down [her] dress in a way that makes [her] want to run.” absolutely nothing happens, and that sentence is the extent of it.
The Seleni want Liona so badly because their race is dying, and they want her to be the mother of their new race. Liona wonders if she’ll be forced to carry a monstrous child.
One of the characters, Byanca, is gorgeous but Liona says “her beauty is hard, a weapon I’d wager she’s wielded many times before.” She hangs out with the magician’s assistants, flirting as she does so.
Talking about the Carnival, someone said that “once, a perfumed egg hit the side of [her] balcony, followed by a crooning “Signorinia!”
There is a romance between Liona and Nico that culminates in a kiss (that comes after they decide to get married). It’s not an overbearing part of the story, and is written well.
There are several intense run-ins with the Seleni, one in which they almost kill a character by pressing a dagger to his throat. They kill a couple character by freezing them from the inside out, and turn water into ice shards and throw them at people.
We learn that the Seleni were given corpses so that they could try to construct human-like, and when that failed, they were given prisoners who had been sentenced to death.
As the Seleni seek revenge, they cause an explosion that rips up a good portion of Venice, killing and injuring many people.
When Liona contemplates her fate, she briefly – very briefly – wonders if suicide would be worse than what lay in store for her if she goes with the Seleni. Instead, she fakes her death. She and Benito sneak on to a nearby Island where many victims of the plague were laid to rest. It’s a little disturbing. They steal a body, disguise it like Liona, then set her room on fire to look like she died in a fire.
Aloysius is ill, and coughs up blood. Eventually Aloysisus gives his life for someone else.
Mago Re is vitriol, and violent when things don’t go his way. After purposefully causing Re to loose a duel, Lio gets beat up by him.
The phrase “God knows,” “heaven’s sakes” and “heaven knows I’ll need it” are used. God’s name is sort-of taken in vain once.
We’re told that Mago Re uses curse words, but the only swear we actually see is the A word, and that is only once.
Someone calls “saint’s blood.” A character mutters “welcome to hell,” then amends it to purgatory. Mago Re says “we pay him enough to buy a nail from Christ’s cross.” Someone says “you couldn’t see the Virgin’s feet down there,” when a character tries to hide. The phrase “sainted mother” is used.
Other things to know:
We’re told people drink wine, and another quote from Homer is about wine. Lio says she thought taverns were “awash in alcohol and drunken brawls,” upon discovering they were, in fact, not. We’re told people move in drunken confusion as they try to get away from the Seleni.
The Seleni are creepy monsters.
Liona lies constantly throughout the story. At first it’s because she has to keep her true identity and her backstory a secret to survive, but then she continues to lie, in part because she’s afraid of what Nico would think if she told him the truth. It results in a consequence of hurt and lost trust.
There are times other characters lie as well.
The Sinking City is one of the most solid books I have read, meaning that the world between the covers seems like it could very well be an alternate reality: Venice, Italy kept afloat by spells.
The quality of the writing is superb, and you end up rooting for, and caring for, the characters.
But it is indeed a “fairytale with teeth” as the author said.
And I think that’s part of what made it so real. It didn’t feel like a fairytale world. It felt like our world. The story didn’t shy away from showing that darkness exists, but it never lost the bit of hope that followed the characters through. Bad things happened that were outside the character’s control, but they didn’t let that destroy them. They grew through it. People made bad choices, and suffered the consequences of their actions. A strong sense of right and wrong prevailed. To quote The Warden and the Wolf King (from The Wingfeather Saga) “We need something beautiful hanging in the dark sky to remind us there is such a thing as daylight.” And despite the fact that characters have to make hard choices in situations that don’t seem to get better, there is a moon.
I throughly enjoyed this book, and to me, the only thing missing (but I could see it so clearly) was a declaration of where that light comes from.
Why do you think Liona’s parents just gave up?
Liona’s father sold her to the Seleni as part of a really difficult choice. Have you ever had to make a choice that difficult?
Why do you think Liona lied so much, even about things unrelated to saving her life? What made her continue to lie, even after getting to know Nico better, and learning about how badly she was hurting him with her lies?
Was this a good choice, or a bad choice? What does the Bible say about lying?
During one of Liona’s conversations with Nico, she says that “wanting more than what you’ve been given isn’t petty.” He responds with “But it’s a matter of how you go after it. You can want something and not get it and still be happy. Or you can want something so badly that it consumes you.” How is this different from the way the world looks at it?
What does the Bible have to say about contentment?
Nico tells Liona that hiding/running from her problems won’t make them any better. How true is this statement? Do you think this advice applies to the situation Liona is in?
At the very end of the book, Liona give up the ability to become the first female magician in Venice so that she could become a herbalist, teacher, and wife. Why is this so contrary to what normal occurs in books/is portrayed in life and entertainment?
Do you think she made a good decision? Why?
What decision would you have made?
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Not included due to the unfortunate happenstance of God’s name being taken in vain.
Taken from the author’s website, which you can find here.
“Venice is a carnival of opposites, and Liona Carvatti thinks she understands it all: canal and palace, magician and merchant, plague and pantomime. As a patrician’s daughter, Liona enjoys the sparkling life of a noble family——although she would prefer to be tending to her flowers than practicing violin or standing around in a ball gown. But what Liona fails to realize is that Venice is a city of stone in a world of water. And ruling the dark waters are the Seleni——ageless, cold, and calculating.
When she looses everything she relies on, Liona must set a new course that will shake the foundations of Venice itself.”