Friday, March 21, 2014

What we're reading: New fiction

I don't know exactly what to say about The City, by Stella Gemmell, which I picked up "cold" from the new fiction shelf. My response when I read the last page was, "What? WHAT? That's it?" I am very confused by this book because I'm not sure what it wanted to be, or even what its author wanted it to be. The author's previous work, which was the completion of her deceased husband David Gemmell's Troy: Fall of Kings, led me to believe this might be a similar case of an alternate history of true events. But halfway through the book, that shifts as we get an intimation that the rulers of the City may be more (or other) than human, which would lend it an aura of science fiction/fantasy. The problem with that is, we wait, and we wait, and we wait some more, and apart from two or three brief but chilling scenes, we don't get the satisfaction of a thorough explanation!

Let me hasten to say that Stella Gemmell is a fine writer. This is an immersive, epic fantasy, and I really enjoyed the leisurely pace, the fine details, and the almost painterly descriptions. She is definitely a storyteller. The characters are compelling--although she kept introducing story lines that didn't then go anywhere because the person died, so that occasionally I wanted to say "Why did you bother with that? How did it advance the story?" But I'm not sure she is an author who is concerned with advancing a story. There seemed to be a purpose, but it evolved so slowly, and from so many points of view, and with such diffuseness, that it doesn't resolve even by the end.

There were characters with whom I fell in love, most notably Fell and Indaro, and also Emly. I don't understand the summarizers of the book (on its jacket and elsewhere) who make it seem like General Shuskara is the main character. He is ONE main character, but hardly the pivot point of the story. In fact, maybe this is what I found difficult about this book, that there IS no truly pivotal character, it's as much an ensemble piece as it is possible for a novel to be, and as such, you never find out as much about anyone as you would like to know. As another reviewer suggested, the real main character is the City itself, but being human, we don't find that so satisfying.

As I read through its 500+ pages, I kept waiting for revelations about the past, revelations about who was ultimately driving the action, revelations about the emperor and his siblings, a hint at where the story was going, and at the end, despite much adventure and many events, battles, and encounters, it didn't go very far at all. If this is a stand-alone book, as many reviewers (to my surprise) conclude, it is beautifully written but flawed because it is so unsatisfying; if there will be a sequel, then this author didn't know how to telegraph that fact so that you weren't left at the end, as I was, gasping with disbelief.

On consideration, I hope there is a sequel, because there are characters with whom I became involved enough to hope I discover their eventual fates; and I still want to know the following: Where did the rulers/founding families come from? Who (or what) are they, exactly? Who was the ultimate author of the plot to assassinate the emperor, in which everyone seemed to be involved but of which no one seemed to be in charge?

Ultimately, I enjoyed the experience this book gave me, but it was a LOT of time to invest for little pay-off.

As a side note: After having read the book, I really disliked the cover on the first edition. The simple picture of a rather primitive looking face guard for a warrior furthered the impression that this was a book of historical fiction, and says almost nothing about the actual events of the book. Searching on the internet for that cover to include with my blog post, I see that the publishers must have agreed with me, since later releases have a cover that does the story justice.

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