The Golden Specific, Historical Fantasy by SE Grove
Series: The Mapmaker’s Trilogy #2
My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
It’s rare to find a second book in a trilogy–more so than in a longer series–that’s as good or better than the first book. Usually it’s no fault on the author’s part, either. Pulling together all of the elements that worked the first time round while keeping things fresh is a daunting task. One wants to see the characters back and recognisable, but not wholly unchanged, particularly if time is supposed to have passed, and adding new characters can be a gamble if the first book’s cast was noticeably large.
The Golden Specific is one of the standouts that is at least as good if not better than the first book. This is helped by the fact that problems I had with the first book were less pronounced and less irritating this time around. I loved that Sophia and Theo had their own plots to pursue, separate from each other, without it weakening their friendship. I did get the feeling that Grove didn’t really know what to do with Shadrack, and I’m not surprised. He spent most of the first book kidnapped, and in this one, he was either so busy with politics that even Sophia was sick of it, or a victim of the plot. (glib to avoid spoilers, it’s actually a good reason to be out of sight) There are only a handful of new characters, and it works out, as this is a new story in which Sophia goes to new places, and not everyone introduced before has to see mention again.
I’ve seen complaints that it’s all a bit too long, and while I’m inclined to agree, it’s not as apparent when you read it like I did–a 100 pages every couple of days. Spread out like that, I didn’t have to worry about feeling trapped. This just might not be a book that one should read all in one or two sessions. There are a number of speed-bumps–the worst of which happens agonisingly close to the end–in the form of interesting but ultimately unnecessary stories or asides. Multiple perspectives so that we can see a pointless love arc near the end while Sophia is sleeping, a fairy tale that really only serves to set up that love thing and set up some lines soon after it’s told, and a new and very minor character’s backstory that could have easily been saved for the third book. Personally, I don’t think the mini-chapters from Sophia’s mother’s POV were needed, and I started skipping the fake book/journal passages at the start of each regular chapter. Just dry world-building.
In spite of all that, the two parallel plots move along at a fair clip, particularly once Sophia’s gets over being all mysterious~~ and clandestine. She goes to the Papal States in search of a diary that she discovered thanks to some undercover research at a Nihilismian library. But nothing is as it seems, and she proves to be a naive traveller on her own. There’s a plague in the Papal States known as lapena, which is a death sentence upon diagnosis. Back in New Occident, Theo is faced with politics and murder, and he must try to find the killer without getting caught breaking a house arrest order. I loved both of the side characters they each picked up, particularly Goldenrod and Nettie.
In general, this is not just a great sequel, but a good book. The villain is poignantly upsetting, the two leads are equally compelling and able to lead their own destinies, it builds on the world, continues the search for Sophia’s parents, and gives all of the characters–as well as the mythology–room to grow. It even seems more like a world with a disrupted timelines that are treated like different countries.