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Fantasy Review: ‘The City’ by Stella Gemmell

The city is a mystery even to those who dwell in it.  It is ancient and sprawling almost beyond belief.  It has been built for years over layers of itself.  It has swallowed neighbors in all directions and has been at war throughout most of the immortal emperor’s reign.  It’s enemies are getting desperate, as are the residents, and there are some who feel an end to the endless war can be achieved with the death of the man on top of it all.

A tight cast and a tightly woven story, I found myself hooked from the beginning. The author sure knows how to tease the reader with just one important detail, starting with a small cast and getting a little more complex with each chapter.  Much like reading an espionage thriller in some regards, each chapter had me rearranging my thoughts and trying to figure out just who knows what and what they were doing.  By the end every important character was moving different directions but none were forgotten, each had their role for better or worse, and competing conspiracies threatened to out one another.  Some may not like the ending, wondering what they just read, but it would be hard to argue that it wasn’t just as tight and complete as the rest of the book.

If I had to make a comparison I would say those who have read KJ Parker should feel very comfortable with this book.  Fairly dark but never graphic.  Entertaining characters but not people that the readers will ever really connect to (though several are a bit more likable than Parker’s).  A plot that reads very easy but feels fairly complex.   And a willingness to kill of characters without hesitation.

What else did I like?  The diversity of the cast for one; generals and scavengers, newly drafted women soldiers and veterans, godlike humans, spy masters, and artisans.  While I didn’t connect to all the characters I enjoyed how much agency each of them had, they had lives of their own rather than drifting until the author needed them.  I enjoyed the life of the city, glimpse of what has held it together and what is slowly tearing it apart.  Loved the unexplained nature of the ruling class; are they truly divine or just smoke and mirrors?  Different characters have different views, always nice.  And as mentioned, an incredibly tight plot that moves at a brisk pace; always giving a few new questions as a few old ones are answered.  Those who hate flashbacks stay away, but for me they worked much the same way Lynch uses them in ‘The Lies of Locke Lamora;’ I found they were just as interesting as the present day and never dragged the book down for me.  (Wow, two author comparisons in one review, I almost never put in even one).

Five star book?  Probably not for me, but certainly it gave a good run.  Much like the aforementioned Parker I marvel at the craftsmanship and will probably reread and enjoy this book in the future, but with very little connection to the characters I enjoyed it in a slightly detached way.  The city also never really felt as big as it was described, leading to a few more unbelievable moments for me, specifically relying on a child’s memory of the underground several years later.  Also if someone could explain the importance of the women’s veil toward the end of the book it would be appreciated, I find myself at a bit of a loss on that one.

4 stars.  Very enjoyable.  Epic fantasy with a Roman touch, the book may not be earthshaking but it is something a little different from the norm.

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