City of Burning Shadows by Barbara Webb is the first book in her Apocrypha: The Dying World series of science fantasy / dystopia novels. I read City of Burning Shadows during the Self Published Fantasy Blog Off, a competition involving ten book review sites with the aim of highlighting the very best works found outside the confines of the major publishing houses.
The story focusses - and is told through the first person narrative of - Joshua “Ash” Drake. He is a man hiding from the past, from the horror of his life as a priest after the gods disappeared. His city and his world are dying. When a new technology offers salvation to his desperate city, Ash must reach out to people he left behind and step back into the world that almost killed him. But there are monsters in the darkness, feeding the chaos, watching the city burn. And once those monsters know his name, Ash will never be able to hide again...
The overarching story concerns Ash and his attempts to recover this new technology in order to save his city. During this mission we meet some of his old acquaintances, we are shown his past and how it has shaped him. There are many different races to be found in this book, ranging from aliens mainly humanoid in shape to sentient bird creatures and shape shifters. This wide array of races both worked and didn’t work for me in equal measure. The relationship between Ash and Seana, a Jaysanian (a member of a highly intelligent, mainly humanoid race which resides in a super high-tech city floating above the city) is very interesting but peculiar in that it seems to be the only known (or mentioned) relationship of its type.
City of Burning Shadows is a difficult book to describe and categorise, which is not in itself a bad thing thing at all. It is ambitious, and this is what I liked most of all about it. I like that it tried to be something new, something different from the norm. Yes, it has familiar elements in it and whilst reading it I was reminded of such movies as Bladerunner and Fallen (the Azazel bit). I was also reminded of the excellent Last Policeman books by Ben H Winters when reading about a city facing its end and how this impacts upon the behaviour of the populace. Indeed, it was how the races were individually dealing with the breakdown of their societies (caused by the sudden disappearance of the gods and with them the rain which made living in a desert city possible) that I found most fascinating.
But as I have already said, I liked it very much. There were many moments I thoroughly enjoyed due to their inventiveness and the strong visual imagery they created. But, on the other hand, there were also moments where I felt confused, and a little at a loss as to what was was going on and who was who and their part on story. But I would much rather experience these ups and downs than read the boring, safe, by-numbers books of which I have already seen too many.
But as with Steven Erikson’s Malazan books, I am drawn to authors whose books take a chance and try new things. The magic that Drake uses is of a type I had not encountered before, the merging of different sub-genres, the cross-race love story - I applaud all the effort and am glad that I read this story. Who would I recommend it to? Well, I think anybody who has a love for both science fiction and fantasy, someone who likes a story which creates excellent mental imagery, will find much that pleases them in City of Burning Shadows.
Review by Floresiensis
by Barbara Webb
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