Thursday, December 8, 2022

Microreview[Novel]: City of Last Chances by Adrian Tchaikovsky

 A web of interlinked stories and moments that's brave enough to try to encompass the totality of a city under occupation... with an accompaniment of interesting magics to back it up.

Cover art by Joe Wilson

City of Last Chances is a somewhat complex book. It tells the story of Ilmar, a city chafing under the occupation of an invading Palleseen force for the last three years. A city of many factions, for the occupation, against it, neutral and just... otherwise engaged. A city of various magics, both familiar and strange. A city of mysteries. A city of immigrants and occupiers and rich and poor and workers and feudal overlords and scholars and priests and gods and all manner of people in between... and all of whom are connected by threads of politics and obligation and camaraderie and rivalry and the shared experience of being in this city, at this time, under this regime. 

Fundamentally, that's what it is. An account of a stunningly wide variety of people's experiences in a city under occupation. And the differences of that experience... how one fact of existence can shatter and refract and become a hundred different perspectives on the same set of events, a thousand different responses.

The story starts slow - we spend a long, long time on a different character's perspective every chapter, picking up a small figure encountered in the previous one and following them to the next. And as such, it takes a long time for the reader to find their feet, because the carpet is always being pulled out from under them. Many of those new chapters contradict, whether in assertion or emotional tone, what has come in the previous one, and so we have to reassess what we know and what we have seen, who has said what and to whom. One chapter's shabby but earnest priest become's another's pitiable, misguided beggar. A swaggering, cultured bravo becomes a simple, violent thug.

But as we get into the swing of things, we see the same faces circling around again and again, and eventually have some chapters told from the same perspective twice, and something begins to emerge. It's nothing so simple as a single narrative, but there are a lot of threads being pulled in complementary directions, and a general movement ripples out to affect all the characters we see, and things begin to happen in Ilmar.

I say "eventually" here because it is... eventually. The first 60% of the book is what I've described above - that steady circling around Ilmar, getting us every angle and view so we can see as much as possible what's happening, and really, deeply understand the city itself. Because for that first 60%, it is a book about the city, and the people as a great conglomerate, far more than it is a book about any of the individual moving parts. Those individuals are useful and interesting, more or less, but they are also quite often emblematic of factions and forces at work within the politics of Ilmar. One of the recurring characters, for instance, is Blackmane, a former magic user who immigrated to Ilmar when his own country was occupied by the Palleseen. His people, the Allor, live in a segregated and poverty stricken corner of the city, judged with suspicion by Ilmari and Palleseen alike, but also... useful. Their magic, their artefacts and their knowledge has its place in the city, though often in the criminal underbelly, or on the borderlines of acceptability. And so Blackmane is a useful window into that community. He tells us far more about the Allorwen experience in Ilmar than he does about himself as a person. Both are there, he's hardly devoid of character, but it feels like what gain most from him is another piece on the game board, another context, and his characterisation is just spicing on that dish.

And because he is far from the only person fulfilling a role like that, and there are a lot of factions and contexts within Ilmar to be explored, this early phase of circling slowly round and round to gather all the points of view is necessarily a slow one. It is interesting, it is clearly beautifully thought out, but it is not always engaging in the way a driving narrative might be.

However, once we pass 60%, we have gathered all the data and perspectives we need, and the plot begins to pick up. We move from watching people manoeuvring to watching them act, to seeing the carefully laid plans that have been peekingly revealed over the previous pages come to life, and forces outside of the mundane things of the city come to bear. And then it gets very engaging indeed. The plot blurs into view, and you see all the carefully laid threads coming swiftly together, and things begin to actually happen. And because we've seen so much of what went into it all, and because Tchaikovsky is very good at what he does, when that switch is flipped and things start happening, however suddenly, it doesn't feel like it comes from nowhere, or that there's some whiplash to it - it's just what we knew might happen coalescing. Even the mysterious external forces have been hinted at and talked about enough that, however inhuman and mysterious they are, their arrival on the scene never feels crowbarred in.

That being said, those external forces are something of a marmite aspect to the book. By the time I reached the end, I loved the role they had to play in the story, but they wouldn't be to everyone's taste, not least because they leave so much unknown and unresolved. They are a chaotic spectre hovering on the edge of reason and of the city, and to understand them would be to strip them of their magic, their mystique. But that absence of understanding is also an absence of resolution, and that isn't always everyone's cup of tea - especially when it feels, as this does, not like there are answers but we just don't have them yet, but rather that there may be no answers at all. Some magic is beyond our knowledge, in this book and this world, and we must simply accept that. In many ways, the wood on the edge of the city and what lies beyond it, a portal to other worlds that is discussed by the characters in hushed whispers, with its strange guardians who operate on rules no one else understands, are an element of folklore, not of magic, in the way they act upon the story. Magic might have rules and explanations - folklore is deeper, older and more oblique.

On the flip side of this, there are also the demons.

Ilmar is, as well as being a melting pot of different nationalities, as well as suffering under the yoke of occupation, a city that has recently undergone something of an industrial revolution. Some of the immigrants have brought with them the technology of... demons. How to raise them, bind them in contracts, and have them do large scale drudge work at a pace and capacity humans can't match. And so the demons power factories, and people who worked on farms a generation before now risk limbs in the demon-run mills instead. The analogy to the industrial revolution isn't subtle here, but it doesn't have to be - it's setting the scene for a city undergoing abrupt and dramatic change. But with demons. Because why not?

And so in terms of its scope, its ambition, and its ability to render a genuinely realistic view of a city on the cusp of revolution, one where class and nationality and wealth and power and religion and much else besides are taken into consideration, where the huge variety of factions are explored in enough depth to give the reader a genuine understanding of the politics of the place... City of Last Chances is immensely successful. I haven't covered a half of what goes into that scene-setting here, because there's just so much going into it, a review couldn't do justice to all the moving parts.

But... but.

By dedicating itself to that scope and ambition, the early parts of the book suffer, and suffer heavily, from a lack of momentum. The chapters are short, the perspectives change constantly, there's no real time to grow fond of or used to any of the characters, and we dot around so much without one or two or more consistent narrative drivers to follow that it does start to feel a little wallowing. It takes a long time for it to become clear what the story is, and longer still for that story to really get going. Once it does, it really does, and in my opinion, the rewards at the end both explain and justify what it takes you to get there. But it requires an amount of work and faith on the reader's part to do so, and that cannot be ignored. Equally, while the ending is, in my opinion, absolutely perfect to all the themes of factionality and politics that resonate through the story, it is also one that I imagine some would find unsatisfying. It is fundamentally a book that will reward interest more than immersion, and both more than escapism or a desire to be swept away by a story. If you can go into it happy with that, or become happy with that, it will be extremely rewarding.


The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for sheer ambition of the number and scope of perspectives included in the story
+2 for genuinely realistic political messiness

Penalties: -1 for that scope needing a fair bit of a run-up to get going
-1 for brief casual fatphobia

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

Reference:  Adrian Tchaikovsky, City of Last Chances [Head of Zeus, 2022]

POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat. @chloroform_tea