The City is a fantasy tale of intrigue, deceit, hate and revenge, and yet it cloaks all of that beneath a layer of honour, loyalty and love. The eponymous City is a vast and ancient state. More than merely a single construct it covers many leagues, and it is at war. Beneath the City, where the story starts, live the Dwellers, people who make what life they can living in the sewers, and it is here we meet the first characters in the story that is about to unfold.
I am challenged by stories which have many characters, especially when the story is then spread across them. I prefer a small number of characters on which I can focus and understand in detail. The City has a dozen or so characters of importance, and early on I struggled with my usual challenge, knowing who to like, who to root for, and who to hate. Not because it isn’t always obvious what’s going on, but because the story has eight or nine people who could be considered the main protagonists. The actual tale however is compelling, and that helped me work through my issue and I’m glad I did. The story moves from character to character, or group to group, each progressing the narrative and revealing a little bit more of the history of The City, or the underlying war and rebellion in which everyone appears to be embroiled. There are some leaps where things I felt were important happened ‘off page’, and I was sad for that, because Stella’s words are so graceful that I would have preferred to read them first hand, rather than hear them second hand through another character.
Stella’s prose is fluid, interesting and engaging. Her touch is delicate, and her descriptions are vivid and long lasting. I am left with a strong visual image of The City in my mind; it’s sprawling landscape and sewer system as much a character in the story as any of the people. The pace throughout the whole story is even and measured, with only a gentle increase towards the end. In some ways, I struggled with that, always expecting the story to explode and be driven forward at pace, and always being pulled back. On reflection, I think it’s intentional, playing back the behaviour of some of the characters, and in particular a game in the story referred to as urquat in which great patience is required.
The City is not a riotous novel of warfare and combat. There are certainly moments of action, vividly described, but the story is more subtle than that, a deeper reflection of the motivations of the characters, and a slow reveal of the people who inhabit The City and those who wish them toppled. The characters throughout the story are well rounded, real and solid. There are touching moments between two specific characters that brought tears to my eyes every time.
Although this is a fantasy novel, there is little magic, and the small amount is revealed slowly over time. The magic is sinister, and woven in carefully to make sure we know it is powerful, closely guarded and mostly reviled.
Stella’s first solo novel is intelligent, compelling fantasy fiction, with enjoyable characters, and moments of true emotion. If I could have one thing it would be to have spent longer with some of the characters, to have enjoyed more of the emotional moments with them. But it is a small desire amongst an otherwise entertaining and enjoyable read.
I find myself left wanting to know more about world, the people, the magic and the Serafim. The City is like a dance viewed from the outside, where many dancers move in beautiful and unexpected patterns, eventually settling into a final position that is both satisfying and mysterious at the same time.
Caveat emptor: I personally know Stella Gemmell. My copy of The City was purchased from Amazon.