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Cannonball Read III: City of Dreams & Nightmare by Ian Whates

By Tyburn Blossom | Books | July 22, 2011 |

By Tyburn Blossom | Books | July 22, 2011 |

Oh, City of Dreams & Nightmare, how did you let me down? Let me count the ways:

This is a story that opens with a brutal murder, committed before the eyes of the Chosen One. Since there’s no real reason offered to care about any of this, I can only assume it’s supposed to matter because someone died. Lives are cheap in fiction, however, and as a reader, I need more in order to engage with the characters. Here we’re barely given characters who are hastily-sketched-on-paper genre stereotypes and we’re given a heavy dose of telling instead of showing.

The titular city is built into a mountain, a hundred levels tall with the wealthiest at the top and the poor stuffed underground in an overused metaphor that’s given nothing fresh or new here. It’s filled up with improbable tech and weak magic (they have escalators…and they call them that. “Calling a rabbit a smeerp” is a problem in spec fiction, but can be wisely employed, and this would be a good time), and all of it’s badly explained by an author who clearly has a weak understanding of what he’s trying to explain.

We’re given an assassin with a reputation for sadism because no fantasy story is complete without one of those, but we’re never given a reason to believe he’s all that evil or sadistic. He engages in some light torture, but in the grand scale of fantasy worlds, he doesn’t do anything especially objectionable. He met up with one of his contacts—a prostitute who had been recently roughed up and robbed by a john. He laid out what he needed from her, then proposed a trip to her place. When presented with her injuries, however, he backed out, gave her the money to recover, and hunted down the guy who hurt her. If he were the sadist we’d been told he is, he’d have gotten a thrill out of seeing her all roughed up, and then he would have hunted down the man who hurt her because he has to take care of his contacts. I guess he was set up as an anti-hero, though, and no one wants their anti-heroes to be too anti-.

We’re also given a Chosen One with an inexcusable ignorance of his own city, because the author wanted a reader surrogate to get him out of the “As you know, Bob,” trap, but he still indulges in enough infodumps to distract from the weak story. The narration is also peppered with terms and descriptions that don’t fit the characters who are supposed to be narrating, and it jumps around the timeline often enough to make keeping up annoying and breaks the reading spell.

I was prepared to be far more gentle with this book when I set out to write the review. There are the seeds of good ideas here. The kite guard, with capes that allow them to fly, are interesting. The big bad deployed a virus that was capable not of subverting one’s will to its whims, but rather of fundamentally changing the victim so that he or she wants and believes what it wants. That’s terrifying…

And yet the seeds of that good idea were destroyed when a little convenient magic was deployed that neatly wiped out the whole thing and reversed its effects. All of the main characters were wearing such obvious PC halos that there was never any genuine danger or suspense. Injuries were handed out when they were convenient to the plot, but there was always a handy healer nearby to make sure the injuries didn’t get in the way. There were lots of deaths, but only to nameless, faceless paper dolls that didn’t mean anything. The bad guy never had any motivation to explain why he was willing to murder to achieve his goals, and in the end, it was revealed that there was no compelling reason why the entire book had to happen.

This book has a few good ideas, but it never rises above rote genre stereotypes. It’s a sad example of everything that makes people dismiss fantasy as a shallow, childish, indefensible genre. I’m not going to defend this book. I am going to ask that if you’re not familiar with fantasy, to ask around to find a better book to start with.

For more of Tyburn Blossom’s reviews, check out her blog, The Congering Basket.

This review is part of Cannonball Read III. For more information, click here.

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