I’m a huge fan of Tchaikovsky’s writing – there are few SFF authors whose prolific output encompasses such a varied range of topics and styles. See my reviews of Children of Time, The Tiger and the Wolf – Book 1 of the Echoes of the Fall series, Redemption’s Blade: After the War, The Expert System’s Brother, Ironclads, Dogs of War, The Doors of Eden, Firewalkers, Cage of Souls Guns of Dawn, Shards of Earth – Book 1 of the Architects of Earth series and Spiderlight to get a feel for the sheer variety of his writing. So this offering piqued my interest, along with the glorious cover.
BLURB: There has always been a darkness to Ilmar, but never more so than now. The city chafes under the heavy hand of the Palleseen occupation, the choke-hold of its criminal underworld, the boot of its factory owners, the weight of its wretched poor and the burden of its ancient curse.
What will be the spark that lights the conflagration? Despite the city’s refugees, wanderers, murderers, madmen, fanatics and thieves, the catalyst, as always, will be the Anchorwood – that dark grove of trees, that primeval remnant, that portal, when the moon is full, to strange and distant shores. Ilmar, some say, is the worst place in the world and the gateway to a thousand worse places.
City of Long Shadows.
City of Bad Decisions.
City of Last Chances.
REVIEW: This story unfolds via multiple viewpoints, with italicised inserts in semi-omniscient point of view. So as the situation within the city steadily deteriorates, while we follow the fortunes of a handful of its citizens from various walks of life, there are also short sections covering a number of characters who only make fleeting appearances and then are gone, not to return. It takes significant technical skill to successfully pull off this type of structure without either losing the reader’s interest or sympathy. Fortunately, Tchaikovsky has that skill – to the extent that I was hooked throughout, even though this is far from my favourite narrative style.
What makes it work is that Ilmar is a fascinating society. In many ways, it’s all too familiar for those of us who studied the likes of Manchester and London during the Industrial Revolution, with the same wretched working conditions for far too many of the population. Then Tchaikovsky adds a twist that demons are also enslaved within factories by the kings of the Underworld, contracted to use their mighty strength and stamina to power the machines that are turning out uniforms for the invading soldiers. For Ilmar is also a city under occupation by a totalitarian regime that is obsessed with bringing Perfection to an imperfect world. And of course, the only way to do that is to conquer all those imperfect states and corral their culture, religion and way of life to the striving for Perfection, right down to altering their language.
In addition to the conquered aristocrats that in theory are running much of the city much of time, despite the occupation – there is also a powerful underclass of criminal gangs that are constantly fighting for supremacy. And one of the places where that battle particularly plays out is in the deserted areas of the city, where not even the occupying Palleseens venture called The Reproach. Ilmar was originally built far too close to a vast forest where vicious, enchanted beings live and the then ruling family made a dynastic pact with the denizens of this wood, which turned them dangerously peculiar. So they were slaughtered in favour of the Duke. But instead of doing the decent thing and fading decorously into the history books, the court of the ruling family is still… alive. And anyone wandering in the wrong part of the woods at the wrong time is apt to be subsumed into their court, to dance until they die, while inhabited by the consciousness of ancient, aristocratic family members.
This could so easily have been a rather charming, fey read. It isn’t. This world is peopled by folks eking out a living in a dangerous society, who have survived by putting themselves first. The powerplays amongst those running the city are all about personal advancement over the wellbeing of those they are responsible for – the Palleseens aren’t too fussy about killing Ilmar’s citizens, anyway. So don’t expect a cast of characters who are either wholly good or bad – everyone is doing the best they can to stay alive, except for a handful carried away by the old stories of glory, who want to see the end of the current occupation. I found it a riveting read, that – despite the grim situation and casual violence – isn’t remotely dreary. I suspect Tchaikovsky’s vivid descriptions, strong control of his narrative drive and flashes of dark humour has a lot to do with that.
As ever when completing one of Tchaikovsky’s books, I came away from this one thinking a lot about the themes of social injustice, the nature of good and evil and what it takes to live a decent life in difficult times. Highly recommended for those who enjoy their fantasy layered with social commentary amidst a vibrantly depicted society. While I obtained an audiobook arc of City of Last Chances from the publisher via Netgalley, the opinions I have expressed are unbiased and my own.