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Saturday, 21 June 2014

Book: The City by Stella Gemmell

So basically, I'm broke as a bumduck. So even though I bought May's reads, June's is coming from my library! I've been trying to read this book since last week. Finally finished it.

As always, this is not censored. Ie, not spoiler-free.


The City review

Image: Pat's Fantasy Hotlist
Author: Stella Gemmell
Publisher: Corgi (Transworld)
Published: 2013 (2014 Corgi Edition)
Fantasy Sub-Genre: Epic

The City is ancient and vast.
For centuries it has been the cause of constant conflict and countless deaths . . .

At the City's heart resides the emperor. Few have ever seen him. Some speculate that he is no longer human, others wonder if he ever truly was. And there are those who have concluded that the only way to halt the ceaseless slaughter is to end his unnaturally long life.

The hopes of these rebels - drawn from the City's rotting catacombs and its blood-soaked fields of battle - rest with one man: a legendary soldier, able to lead an uprising and unite a people, a man who was betrayed, imprisoned, tortured - and who might quite possibly be dead . . .

I'll be honest, I really can't be arsed with a summary for a story this complex, which is probably why they dumbed it down so much for the blurb. Let's just get into it.

This book was very good. I had my doubts, but as a whole its structure , narration and plot together had me increasingly optimistic throughout. But I have to admit that I was given a lot of opportunities to put the book down... so I did, and did other things, which is why I wasn't able to finish it for last Saturday.

The opening and Part One was fairly interesting, the rats drew my curiousity and now having read the story, I think it was the perfect way to start the book, though I wasn't thinking that at the end of Part One. I was very intrigued by the idea of the City continually being built over, though I not sure how the practicalities of that work, and the imagery for it is great. Things really picked up at Chapter Three, when my faith in the writing style, the characters, and where the story was going, increased tremendously. There was this excellent bit of foreshadowing;
'But it was also true that it was more than dangerous. [...] If there was a flood, [...] By the time any Dwellers there realized the water was rising, it would be too late.' (p.15)
That was a really powerful line. Here's another;
'A million drains sucked the rain down [...] drawing it deep beneath the city' and 'A weight of rain filtered through layers of the City's history, deep down to where the sewers were crushed and broken, squeezed flat by the weight of time.' (p.28)

It's so wonderfully descriptive and I could picture that hidden City in my head, which is what I imagined until it became clear that actually, it was. Being a X-men kid at heart, it did remind me of the Morlocks.

One thing that kept happening, I suppose to liven up the sluggish pace of the story, was that we'd get a Muriel Spark-style foreshadowing line, telling the reader about something that has yet to happen to keep the interest. One example is that same line above that I love on page 15 but then it happened again at the end of Part One (p.96) and I became a bit sceptical. Regardless, I was liking it thus far.

Part Two. The names in this story are great. They all sound very, very different from each other, which is a bit weird as they all come from and live in the same one nation, but still. I didn't like how often the word 'slashed' was used on the same page (p.99) or the use of the verb 'explained' for a one-word dialogue (p.102) - but that was a one-time thing and I didn't see it again. I was starting to get hooked on the plot, especially after that incredible and somehow unpredictable flood, although in hindsight there was actually foreshadowing for it. The dynamic that the flood added to the war was amazing and it's one of my favourite parts of the book.

One thing I must say about Gemmell's writing is how incredible her scenic descriptions are. My one criticism is that they come in chunks, which is understandable considering how in depth the story is, but it wasn't blended into the texture of the story as fluidly as other works I've read recently. For example, the character descriptions are very poor. I was really irritated by the fact that it took several pages to figure out whether Doon was male or female, as there was no pronoun attached to her for ages. Writing etiquette! But for setting, when those stand-off paragraphs did come, they were wonderful and brought places to life so vividly.

There is one final thing that was bugging me, but I've decided to discuss it in the feature below, Fantasy Food For Thought.

Part Three. OH GOD, this bit gets so good. We're back with the characters that we started with and the story has already developed massively. I was unsure, at first, if I liked the amount of time that passed between hearing about the characters, in terms to remembering the little details concerning them, but actually it was fine. I was horrified at the merchant awful son harassing (molesting, really) Emly, and cheering at the return of Broglanh, a character I really like. But most of all, I loved how more and more, the different threads of the story were weaving together.

Part Four continues on this trend, though it gets to a point where things weave together so conveniently that I couldn't help ironically singing, 'Iiiiit's a small world aaaaafter aaaaaall...' I did find the imprisonment of Indaro and co. very interesting, and it reminded me a little of David Mitchell's The Thousand Summer Of Jacob De Zoet, SPOILER!!! in terms of being imprisoned and trying to find a way out. SPOILER OVER. I was mortified by what happened to Doon - still mortified actually, I remembered it as I started typing. Although it was clear from the moment she became a (pointless and personality-lacking) viewpoint character that she'd be a means to an end, I did quite like her.

The plot pulls together even more and Part Five is when the plot to kill the Emperor is hatched. That plot was VERY confusing. I could follow the action, but it wasn't clear at times what the AIM of each action was, so it almost felt like being pulled along on a string. The Opera House scene was another of my favourites, wonderfully done. Best of all, us fantasy junkies got a clean, clear hit of the fantasy drug right there. I have no idea what sort of 'sorcery' Marcellus used but I tell you, that scene was mint. Again appalled at Amita's death... and again, she wasn't very important but this time she was very likeable and her personality shone right through.

There is one thing that nagged me - the exposition technique used in the story is quite clumsy - like making a character use a new face's name the dialogue soon after they speak, either for the POV character or for the reader, but not often because it was natural to call the person by name, depending on the circumstance. Of course this is rare enough for it to be dismissed, but then the same went for backstories and plot reveals. I wondered if I was being too picky, but I know that I've read stories that haven't done this, so I stand by my words. It's disappointing that most of the epics so far have done that, though I understand that with such a heavy novel, there only so many different seamless ways to get across such a large chunk of information.

Part Six is when I thought about how ridiculous it seemed that Indaro went from looking into Fell's eyes and being indifferent about him to then being willing to take on a hundred men to save his life (this doesn't literally happen, I'm paraphrasing her narrative), considering how we are told in great detail how Fell has watched her for months and went from disliking her to gradually coming to highly appreciate her, and finally falling in love. It could be said that his feelings for Indaro were more sexual than vice versa, (COULD be, based on the way she was described from his viewpoint. I know she had her moment too), but to be honest, if I have to be reaching into Maybes and Could Be's to try and explain something I don't understand in a story, then the author failed at their intention. Simple. As.

I suppose I should bring up our timid teenage Emly practically seducing Broglanh. In a way, I was surprised, alarmed and entertained at Emly's rash behaviour all at once. Following her train of thought and her feelings about her situation, it makes a lot of sense how she went from A to B to C ad suddenly to S. It's weird, but shockingly - I know it's weird to say this, being fussy old me, but I actually found that more believable than the Fell/Indaro relationship.

Seven! Learning of the Reflections was my favourite fantasy element of this story, and the only thing that came close was to learn how many of the characters we know have varying degrees of 'serafim' blood, and I hope I got that right because I wasn't too clear on that. Sad to see Stalker go. Very sad. It made sense though - I believe his foot was injured so if he was suffering a physical impairment, he wouldn't be able to kick as hard as the others as they all swam to the Hall of Watchers. I absolutely loved the end when Indaro killed the Emperor, first because it was a stroke of genius how she recognised that he was behind her, but also because from the moment she saved that boy, I guessed he might be the Emperor, as it would be unexpected - which is why I expected it. But I had no idea that the Emperor would have bloody Reflections everywhere, and it could have been any one of them that was killed, so that just made it better.

It reminded me of Medusa of Greek mythology, and also of the Basilisk in Harry Potter and The Chamber Of Secrets, having to slay the monster you can't look at.

The Verdict

3 Sha's.

This was an excellent story, well told for the most part. The way the different, different strands of the story are brought together was impressive and highly satisfying. The reason why I couldn't give it more is because it wasn't really my type of fantasy. Large chunks of it bored me, especially when introducing a new character late in the story. But I can easily see somebody giving it a four and I would definately recommend it. In fact, I'm recommending it to my sister right now.

Image: Sci Fi Now

Fantasy Food For Thought

Sewers - labyrinths.

For some reason, I am feeling the need to read the Tales Of The Otori series again. It is a must-read for any fantasy fan.

Finally, what I was going to talk about above... in this novel and in Tigana, there is a central female character with red hair who is markedly described as beautiful. I hadn't noticed until this point, and wondered if this was some sort of trope in epic fantasy that I hadn't noticed before - the Red Hot Redhead. Every time, there is particular attention drawn to this (clearly rare, in that particular world) hair colour, and I feel as though it becomes more important to that female character identity than any other aspect of her personality. Any character who didn't know Indaro just described her as having 'red hair' and gave no other details, indicating that we were meant to know it was her every time.

George R.R. Martin also uses this for the 'kissed by fire' Ygritte, in the A Song Of Ice And Fire series. In my own novel (codename: OOTD), there is a character with ginger hair, and I'm by no means changing her, but I hope I succeed in bringing a bit more diversity to this trope-that-I-discovered-just-now. If it's even a thing popular enough to bother diversifying.

Ashana Lian .

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