[I received a copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.]
Although this sequel to "The Heartless City" is more of a standalone, I'd still recommend reading the first novel, as it will make understanding Philomena (and her relationship with her friends) better.
Philomena herself is a character I liked a lot in the previous book. As a young woman, almost a girl still, who grew up in an infested London and a slave of her household, just good enough to be married and have children as soon as she'd be of age, she could have been just any old secondary character, but let not her diminutive stature fool you: there's fire and heart and willpower underneath. Disowned by her family, she goes to New York to fulfil her dream of becoming a singer on the Broadway scene. There starts the story of "The Hypnotic City".
I must admit I remained torn throughout my reading, because of the "rags to riches" aspect—it was hard for me to decide if it was too cliché to my liking, or if it provided, on the contrary, a nice mise en abyme to Tom Casey's shows: they're described as "ridiculous and inane" by Jamie, stories where a working girl discovers she's actually from a noble background and gets to embrace her legacy while also finding love... and this runs parallel to what happens to Philomena, except that she knows she's of noble birth, but hides it, since people are always scared of her whenever she mentions coming from London. I tend to be on the fence regarding such plots, and there are quite a few clichés as well in this one: the letters that never arrive. Still, I couldn't help but keep thinking that was totally on purpose, the author going all "sod it, I like those tropes, so I'm going to use them", and not something done to fit a stereotype just because "some people love it". I cannot fault that, and any reader who enjoys this kind of story is very likely to enjoy this one more than I did. (Which isn't to say I didn't—it's just not my favourite kind of plot, if that makes sense.)
One really good thing here, regarding this "sterotypical plot", is the feeling of unease permeating it. Perhaps because I already knew what Philomena had been through, perhaps because I expected "something" to happen at some point, but also because, under all the glitter and budding-singer-becomes-a-star glitz, I could sense that something was amiss. And I'd say the characters feel it too, especially Jamie, who may speak out of jealousy or contempt, yet nevertheless puts a finger on a few strange things in the process.
Another good thing is that the heroine is not a passive, helpless creature who lets events unfold around her; she tries to seize chances (going to auditions...) when she can, and she asserts her will (when a man boos her at her first show, she improvises and ends up impressing the audience). Phil knows what she wants, and is ready to fight for it, even though there are moments when she feels defeated. Yet this is also part of what "being a strong character" entails: it doesn't mean being strong all the time, nor doing everything alone, it also means being able to acknowledge when you need help, and get it, and then win. Sort of.
The romance part was alright (I know, I know, I'm really a tough audience in terms of romance). Philomena's love interest definitely had flaws, which made him human (and that's good), but those flaws weren't a deal breaker for me, unlike all these brooding-assholish "I'm so dangerous so don't come near me characters", and he was a decent person all around, who respected Phil's personality.
The other guy was revolting, to say the least. I hated reading about him—and that is an extremely good thing, since eliciting feelings in a reader isn't so easily done, at least not when I am concerned. When an author conveys how despicable a character is, in a manner that makes me feel like strangling said character with their own guts, well, that author has done something right.
I do believe the story could and should have been longer, though. As it is, a lot of screen time, so to speak, was devoted to the "rags to riches" part, and by contrast the resolution came too quickly. We barely get to see anything of Iris, Elliot and the others, when their role was important and would have deserved more, without necessarily detracting from Phil's status as the main character. As it is, it seemed as if the main story was all told already, and that the mysterious/conspiracy part of the plot had to be dealt with because a resolution was expected, yet without being really convinced about it. Had this part been more developed, it'd have been a 4-stars for me.