The City is ancient and vast and has been waging almost constant war for centuries. At its heart resides the emperor. Few have ever seen him. Those who have remember a man in his prime - and yet he should be very old. Some speculate that he is no longer human, others wonder if indeed he ever truly was. And a few have come to a desperate conclusion: that the only way to halt the emperor's unslakebale thirst for war is to end his unnaturally long life.
From the crumbling catacombs beneath the City where the poor struggle to stay alive to the blood-soaked fields of battle where so few heroes survive, these rebels emerge. Their hopes rest on one man. A man who was once the emperor's foremost general - a revered soldier who could lead an uprising and liberate a city, a man who was betrayed, imprisoned, tortured and is now believed to be dead...
For the few that do not know Stella Gemmell, I am sure they will know her late husband, David, author of the Drenai and Rigante series, as well as many others. Stella took up the mantle of David’s final Troy novel after his passing with great acclaim and The City her first solo work and a fine piece of epic fantasy fiction.
I started The City with a certain predisposed literary association between her late husbands work and her own. Thankfully I was wrong, The City is an epic fantasy story written in its own style. Stella has given us a complex but easily read tale and I was pleasantly surprised with how the story and characters were portrayed. There is a depth of history depicted that doesn’t overwhelm the reader and immerses you into the world of The City, at times seeing the walls of the city surrounding you, your nerves on edge as you walk the sewers beneath the city in complete darkness and feel the tension of the protagonists as they battle to survive.
As you would expect in a story with an epic theme there are strong and quickly established characters; a fallen general, desperate soldiers and the obligatory orphans, set against a backdrop of revenge, loyalty, honour and survival. There are few clear magical elements in the world of The City; magic is conveyed in characters like the Immortal Emperor. The magical interactions that do arise revolve around the concept of the Immortals called the Serafim, like the Emperor. The Serafim are described as travellers from someplace else, their “magic” manifests in their long lives, as well as one or two other overt abilities which I am not going to be divulging - they don’t happen very often and it’s worth waiting for the surprise. I don’t mind the concept that these abilities are not innate in the original habitants of the The City but gained because the Serafim crossbreed with them, it adds another complexity to this fantasy world.
Stella Gemmell has given each character their own distinct feel and quality and weaves there stories with precision. However, at times it is hard to see the purpose of each individual’s story arch, which at times feels like you may be missing some crucial piece of information, due I feel to the initial division of the character stories. In the end each piece is brought back together and the threads do make more of a whole. The concept behind the war with the ‘Blues’ and conscripting men and women into military service was interesting when you take into account the longevity of the Emperor. When you don’t measure time in years but eons what does the death of a few thousand or million men and women mean? It shows how removed from the world the Emperor is, if both men and women are made to fight how can there be children, how can the city progress and even self-servingly have his own needs met.
The first quarter for me was a little slow as Stella Gemmell outlined the different characters to the reader, but once this was accomplished the pace picked up. There is where I think the story needed flashbacks, which show how the main characters knew each other from their pasts and gives legitimacy to their future interactions. The separate stories for Bartellus and Fell with their cutaways to there own personal history, while necessary, distracted from the moment that character was in. I also expected that Emly and Elija, as the opening characters to the book would have had a more active role in the plot, but it felt to me while they had purpose but did not inhabit the front lines of the story. Stella’s portrayal of one of the female protagonist, Indaro was strong, relatable and likable, but I don’t think she got the page-time she deserved. Indaro played a pivotal role in the story but her narrative was always balanced, I felt with another characters interaction. I would have liked a more Indaro biased perspective.
The City concludes with “an ending”, but it can be read in such a way that there is more to tell. However, if there were not any further books for the series you could be content with its finale. I will be the first to admit that I picked up this story with my own reservations and preconception, but was very happy to have them changed. This is a great addition to the epic fantasy genre.
Review by Fergus McCartan
2 positive reader review(s) for The City
Matt from Canada
I picked up this book to read while travelling and was surprised how much time I put into it. It reminded me, particularly in its dark realism, of the Malazan Books of the Fallen by Steven Erikson, which is my favourite fantasy series. The only problem I had was that I wanted to keep learning more about the City and its peoples, functioning, surroundings and neighbours when it finished. I'm looking forward to reading the sequel!
Alan from UK
For me, this is one of the best fantasy novels I have read in decades. Stella Gemmell is an excellent writer, and at times (particularly in her descriptions of people) reminds me of Mervyn Peake. This book has proper character development, and bags of verisimilitude. At no point would I have described it as slow-paced, but it is 'literary', or at least more so than many novels in this genre (which is not a criticism of them). I would highly recommend this to people who like genuinely meaty books. Brilliant!
8.3/10 from 3 reviews