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Fantasy Review: ‘The Drowning City’ by Amanda Downum

Three people aboard a trade ship enter the city of Symir.  The purpose of their journey is not benign; finding and funding the terrorist organizations that could take down the city.  Isyllt is a necromancer from the north looking to slow Symir’s expansionist ways.  She is joined by two body guards, Adam and Xinai, the latter being a native with very bad memories of the city.  Even early on she realizes the horror of what she is working for, for success will mean death of innocents and even friends.

The author admits the plight of New Orleans after Katrina to be a heavy influence for Symir; the city is under constant threat of flooding, as well as under the shadow of an active volcano.  Both are kept in check through judicious magic warding.  Isyllt arrives for the start of monsoon season as well, upping the danger.  It adds an interesting dynamic to the city, and the constant threat of natural disaster isn’t something I have experienced in my own fantasy reading all that often.
They city itself provides the backbone of the book, and the entire story stays focused within or around Symir.  I loved the city’s life; despite the constant threats it was obvious that for most people life did not revolve around the main characters but rather had a life of its own.  It sounds strange, but so often it seems the main characters of stories create a black hole the rest of the world falls into, and I really enjoy that the author avoided this.  By focusing on the one city we are left not knowing much about the rest of the world, but who cares?  The city is what matters, and by sticking with Symir the book avoids the trap of bloat.  

There are a few other things I felt were done well.  The dueling rebel groups had different means to their ends, but neither were obviously the good guys.  While Isyllt is revolted by the extreme measures one group takes (including a suicide bombing), she knows that here ultimate goal could lead to just as much death.  Because of the ambiguity of just who is in the right there were great dynamics.  Were the occupiers evil?  Sure they did some horrible things (secretly forcing political prisoners to do hard labor), but also allowed the natives a voice in government.  However working with the occupiers leaves people labeled as collaborators, and possibly a target for the groups working to free the city.  Even Isyllt is caught in a strange place, at one point helping the person who could bring down her entire plan in the investigation of an attack like she is supposed to be supporting. 
 
The magic was yet another strength; mostly because it was also subtly done.  Not in lack of visibility, but rather in how it is explained.  Just enough context is given to show the capabilities of various mages, but it is never over-explained to the point where it stops feeling like magic.  It is diverse and fairly common, but with some very real limitations.  Much of it is based around death, and ghosts are very real and often involved in all the plotting.  There was one major character whose power ended up feeling a bit strong for the set up, but other than that instance it left me satisfied.

Not a perfect book, despite its many strengths.  The ease with which Isyllt finds the groups she is looking for is a bit hard to believe.  Some minor romance angles fell flat in my eyes, I just never bought into them.  I also never really felt much life in the characters outside of Isyllt.  In many ways the city they were living in out shined everyone else, a few times I had to back track to remember why this characters or that was even important.

3 ½ stars.  I enjoyed it, but I can’t see it leaving a lasting impression on me. 

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