S. Worthen (owlfish) wrote,
S. Worthen


Envision a city. It's waterbound, with canals dividing up its districts from each other. Gondolas transport visitors and the wealthy to their destinations. Even today, the most well-off palazzos employ their own gondoliers. Merchandise arrives from all over the world here, and merchants hold a great deal of power, influencing the government and frequently a part of it. Its liquid arteries are filled with traders. The rich live in large palaces, walls hiding away rich interior spaces, including gardens. The city was built on swamp, reclaimed from the sea by hard work, but not all of it is in good condition. There is swamp still nearby.

Is this Venice? It could be. Venice is a city so prolifically influential that I often think of Venice books as being their own genre. There are certainly enough of them. The canals, palazzo, and the gondolas, all governed by a Grand Duke, clue in the reader to a Venice-influenced fantasy, but it is not Venice. There is no lagoon, no immediate mainland, and, even more notably, the characters at least once go into a subterranean basement. They exist in Venice, such as in the modern Palasport, but rarely. Despite what Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade would have you believe about the Chiesa S. Barnabà library there, it has no basement.

Mermeia is the city at the heart of Lisa Shearin's first novel, Magic Lost, Trouble Found (MLTF). It is a novel of topography and quest, but it evokes buildings and details with a light hand, leaving the architectural details to the reader's imagination. Are the palaces neo-Gothic or Romanesque? There isn't enough detail to be certain in every instance except one (which is Gothic influenced). The novel, told from the perspective of its main character, Raine Benares, knows the importance of the ground beneath the characters's feet and the shape of human movement, but doesn't care about an excess of other physical detail.

That her last name is Benares immediately clues in the cross-cultural influences which underlie this urban fantasy. It is not set in this world, after all, but, like many fantasy novels, it takes advantage of the atmosphere evoked by use of strategically-chosen real-world elements. Baked sugar twists require the importation of sugar from somewhere else. City distance is frequently measured in North American blocks. Alcohol is served in pints. Still, these features are added off-handedly and sporadically, enough that i could count them as ways of relating to an audience, rather than giving the world too much baggage to account for off-page.

Mermeia itself sounds as if it ought to be derived from the English (originally Middle English) "mermaid", a word whose concept comes from the classical "siren". And indeed, in the novel, there is a classy gambling joint named "Sirens". (Of course, to treat the word more literally, it could just be a place of the sea.) The author herself credits Greek, Latin, Hindi, Egyptian, and various Native American languages as the sources of most of her person-naming conventions.

Venice itself is, of course, an iconic conflation of Mediterreanean influence, which encompass Greek, Latin, and Egyptian, among others. (Saint Mark's body was stole from Alexandria and brought back to Venice, for example -- not that that's a good example of trade, but it's one which ties in to the necromantic elements in MLTF.) Whether or not the cover artist was told this going in, she clearly used Venice as a basis for designing the cover's background. The Chiesa della Madonna della Salute is tucked under Raine's right arm. Off to the left, the Punta della Dogana has acquired some bonus decorations.

But it's not Venice, not really, for all that city casts a certain shadow over Mermeia's creation. Mermeia has its own vibrancy, one dependent, in part, on elements Venice lacks and which have very little to do with cross-cultural mishmashes: underground chambers; only five districts; goblins and elves; and a whole lot of magical abilities.

Today is the U.S. publication date for the sequel to Lisa Shearin's Magic Lost, Trouble Found. It's entitled Armed and Magical. It is not set in Mermeia.

P.S. MLTF is an exemplary urban non-modern fantasy, balancing dark with humor, plus an effective sense of streetscape and a pinch of romantic tension.

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