My rating: Beach vacation
Irenicon has so many different elements. Alternate history of the European Renaissance variety, steampunk fantasy, understated romance, superhero battles, magical water creatures. It also has elements of religious allegory.
This book tells the story of Captain Giovanni, architect to the Concordian empire, and Sofia, heir to the city of Rasenna. Their lives intertwine when Giovanni is sent to build a bridge over the wily Irenicon river in Rasenna, a city dominated by two gangs. Decades ago, the Irenicon was flooded by a mechanical device built by Concord, to depress the wealth and power of its rival. Lives, homes, and people were destroyed, and since then, two groups of tower-jumping gangs have ruled the north and south sides of the city. Sofia is approaching her 17th birthday, and the day she officially becomes Countess of Rasenna. Her position and birth make her a powerful pawn in the struggle between the gangs, but she has plans of her own. Giovanni, disgraced architect of Concord, meets her when he arrives to build the bridge over the Irenicon. Though it is a symbol and tool of Concord’s dominion over Rasenna, and will be used by an invading army to pass through the city, Giovanni gives it a different significance – one of unity. As the bridge is built, politics in the city shift, power moving swiftly between the north and south sides. Outside Rasenna, Concord makes plans of its own, which are revealed as the plot advances.
The region is based on Renaissance Italy, with culture, language, and people influenced by our own Italian culture. My absolute favorite aspect of this book, it is clear that the author has an intimate knowledge of Italian language and culture. This knowledge permeates the book in minor and major ways, but the minor ways were really the most impressive.
The historical fantasy world was intricately drawn, with international politics, city politics in a gang-ruled city, an Empire not unlike the Roman Empire, steampunk-inspired technology (mostly clockwork and incredible/fantastical architecture), and a religious belief system that claims Jesus died young, perhaps as an infant, and Mary was the real messiah. A tug of war between humans and the buio, or water spirits, erupted centuries ago, and these mysterious creatures influence the conflicts in the events of the book.
Sofia enchanted me from the start: stubborn, proud, clever, and unsure of what she wants, her bravery in battle is offset by her cowardice when it comes to relationships and trust. Yet, she has the opportunity to grow, and does. The secondary characters fit well into the whole, and I really enjoyed reading as a few of the Small People gained confidence in their own power to influence events in Rasenna.
Throughout the novel, snippets of religious history and belief systems popped up, but it wasn’t until the end that this played a large role. As I am personally uninterested in the way the ending hangs off this particular cliff, I will not be reading the next book. That written, I did enjoy Irenicon, for its characters, its political plotlines, and the worldbuilding. Recommended for readers who love worlds built on Italian culture, and for fans of historical and/or alternate fantasy.
*Review copy from the publisher via Edelweiss
Although The Silver Wolf by Alice Borchardt revolves around ancient werewolves, it also takes place in a very real, alternate ancient Rome – this time during the decaying of the empire. With more romance than Irenicon, it will appeal to fans of historical romance and urban fantasy as well.
Cold Magic, by Kate Elliott, has more of an epic fantasy feel. However, if you like alternate history, you may enjoy the way this one reimagines the whole of Europe. On a grander scale than Irenicon, it encompasses more and a wider variety of cultures. At the center of the tale are cousins Bee and Cat, who have a mysterious destiny and shiploads of courage to get there (relatively) safely.