Liona Caravatti’s family belongs to one of the highest ranks in the city of Venice. Her life is comfortable, filled with little delicacies, affectionate siblings, and splendor. The one note in it that sounds off is her relationship to her father, which, though she doesn’t understand why, is different than his relationship with her siblings. While he dotes on them, his eyes slide past her, leaving her free in some ways to grow up as she pleases, but giving her nonetheless an ache that she cannot place.
Venice is a city of the sea—a city threaded through with canals, where the water is never far from the front doors of its citizens. It is beautiful, but the one note in it that sounds off is that of the Seleni, an ancient race of water-dwellers who retrieve pearls for the wealthy Venetians in exchange for a home in Venice’s waters. But the Seleni’s brine-like smell precedes them whenever they come on land, and the bargains they make with those wealthy citizens always come at a high cost.
When the Seleni intersect with Liona’s family, the city itself begins to crumble.
The Sinking City is a beautifully written story that weaves fantastic elements into the solid structures of a real city. Venice seems a plausible place in which to find magicians and wrathful sea monsters, and Liona surprises herself as well as readers as she navigates the city, trying to save it, her own life, and that of her family. The story is enjoyable and unpredictable, and Cohen’s ability to craft complex, believable characters is stunning: even the city of Venice feels like a character in the story—one with desires and personality. Her descriptions of the courtyards, canals, and alleyways of Venice make it feel as though her version of the city extends beyond the story; one gets the sense that just beyond the courtyard she’s describing, there are several more worth exploring.
There are some grim moments in The Sinking City, and for that reason I don’t think I’d recommend it for younger teens. But those moments are purposeful and they’re handled well—they suit the story and serve to show how high the stakes are for the characters. Just as Cohen’s Venice is undergirded with spells, The Sinking City is undergirded with themes of humility and sacrifice that play out in beautiful, nuanced ways. If the book has a fault at all, it might be in the ending, which places too neat a bow on a story that is otherwise rich and multi-layered. But I don’t hold that against it: this is a book I look forward to sharing with my daughters, and one I can’t wait to re-read.
The Sinking City
Christine Cohen (2021)