Sunday, April 21, 2013

Reading Notes: The Last City

This review is book 4 for me in the 11-book Aurealis Awards science fiction and fantasy novels finalists list. The next two books I will be covering are Garth Nix's Confusion of Princes (sci fi) and Jo Spurrier's Winter Be My Shield (fantasy).

Nina D'Aleo's debut novel is being pitched by the publisher, Momentum, as Perdido Street Station meets Blade Runner, something that I'm glad I didn't know before reading it, because it enabled me to feel all clever and edumacated when I picked the stylistic and thematic link to Perdido Street myself halfway through the book.

The whole feel of this text reminded me of China Mieville's classic - the dystopian city, the assortment of species and subspecies living and loving together, the threat of evil that involves the theft of minds and spirits, the sense of law and order being the thinnest of veneers over a mob-ruled underbelly, the mismatched team confronting the menace head on. Scorpia, the city of the story, reads so much like New Crobuzon that it almost felt like coming home to a brutal, but beloved, story-home. (I have *lots* of story-homes; I've been a lot more places in my reading life than I'll ever go in body, and that is one of the things I love so much about fiction).

However, I don't see a Blade Runner heritage at all in The Last City. This book is, for want of a better word, much more alive than Blade Runner. OK, yes, it features a hunt (or sorts), but it lacks entirely that peculiar greyness, that noir-ish coldness, that searing, biting truthiness, that sets Blade Runner apart among its kind. There will only ever be one Phillip K. Dick, and Nina D'Aleo is not his reincarnation.

This is not a criticism, though, because this is an extremely good book, worthy of its own garlands on its own terms. The character development is extraordinarily good - all the ensemble main cast in the Trackers team are vividly realised and engaging, which is no mean feat given how much plot and world-background D'Aleo gets through. There is a LOT, it starts immediately, and it's achieved without too much protoganist-puppet exposition (although there is a bit of that - one or two "And this is how X works" soliloquies spring to mind).

Plunging us into the central crisis more or less immediately is a bold move, as it means that the reader spends the first quarter of the book in a state of spin, trying to follow the rapidly unfolding drama while wrapping your head around the rules and norms of Scorpia, its history, the functioning of science and magic, and the people we are thrown in with in this boiling pot of story.

The Tracker team and the key hangers-on they collect on their way are wonderful. There is team commander, human-breed Copernicus Kane; fairy-breed Fen, the electrosmith Diega; imp-breed Eli Anklebiter, inventor and resident softie/ conscience; mixed-breed Androt-human breed prince-in-hiding, Jude; and new recruit Silho Brabel - who turns out to be the key to everything, oh what a surprise, fulfilling that oldie but goodie story trope of "The Mysterious New Guy has A Special Secretness That Is The Key To Everything." Eli was far and away my favourite character - I really took to that little guy, and he's the one I *needed* to survive to keep me on board. (Spoiler alert - He does :-)

But outside the team themselves, the add-on characters are equally strong. Outlaw Ev'r Keets, gangster bosses Christy Shawe and Caesar K'Rul, the Midnight Man spectral breed whom Eli saves, Androt rebel leader Kry, the sad but determined  spectral Raine. Getting me to care about that many characters is truly a rarity, but D'Aleo pulls it off; I actually was invested in all of them at once, and vitally engaged with the story because I wanted a good outcome for them all, however unlikely. (Well, except Kry, maybe. He's a bit of a bastard).

If I was to criticise this book, it only would be on the grounds of complexity and an embarrassment of riches. There are times when the layers-upon-layers gets a little bit much to bear, and I felt like the number of Skreaf battles was more than I needed to underline the seriousness of the threat. To be fair, I have a habit of becoming quickly bored with battle sequences, no matter how relevant or well written, but even in this context, I could've stood an arrival at the point a trifle earlier than we actually got there.

That said, I realise that D'Aleo had to do a lot of world and plot establishment in this book to prepare the way for the sequels to come (which I'll be eagerly awaiting). I expect less dizzying novelty in future Scorpia books and a continuation of the terrific plotting, fascinating characterisation, deep world engagement and clever, stylish writing. If that happens, this will be a series to stand beside the very best of the past 20 or even 50 years in this genre.

Please note: From today onwards, this blog will be on a temporary book- and serious-blogging hiatus for 2 weeks due to work and family commitments. I may post a poem or two in that time if the mood strikes :-) In the meantime, I will be over at The Shake next Tuesday (30th) with the next Interleaves column, which will be a discussion of runaway success and controversial Miles Franklin prize nominee, The Light Between Oceans.

I will be back into book territory on 6 May with hopefully a double book review  covering Nix and Spurrier's books, and intend to try to get as many of the Aurealis finalists read and reviewed as possible before the prize announcement on 18 May.


  1. Kathy, thanks for linking this in to BYL. Cheers

  2. Sounds interesting...thanks for sharing.

    Stopping by from Carole's Books You Loved May Edition. I am in the list as #36.

    Silver's Reviews
    My Book Entry