Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Drowning City

Rating: 3 stars
Length: Comfortably moderate (370 pages)
Publication: September 1, 2009 from Orbit Book
Premise: Isyllt Iskaldur has been sent to the canal city of Symir, capital of Sivahra, to support the local resistance movement and thus weaken the occupying Assari Empire before it can invade her own land. That mission is complicated by the deep-rooted loyalties of one of her companions, the underlying tension is the city, and the close attention of an imperial nvestigator.
Warnings: unusual consent issues, gore
Recommendation: If you're interested in necromancy, a frank examination of the human costs of occupation and rebellion, or settings with a South Asian cultural influence, give this one a try. As a fantasy book in a general sense it could stand to improve, but it absolutely excels in those areas.

There are a few minor spoilers scattered down in the red pen section, particularly during the discussion of Xinai.
What makes this one richly vivid:

Authors in this genre have a lazy habit of sticking to pseudo-Europe, but Amanda Downum has very clearly done her research and injects an air of lived experience into Symir. Life there is ruled by the Assari Empire, the rain, and the river-- which is a force and mind in its own right, kept in check only by imperial spells meant to subdue the very land itself if it attempts to rise up. This aspect helps play into the sense of this nation being ancient. The river and the volcano are gods or spirits who love their children but cannot always understand their individual movements and actions, and have to rely on those humans in order to break their bindings. The river is full of murderous water demons, and jungle whispers with the spirits of the trapped and furious dead, who are just as much a part of the rebellion as their living children are.

At any rate, the people of the city are still living the first generation or two of occupation, so some citizens are trying to work with the Empire in order to maintain some sort of voice in ruling their own homeland-- others have decided that violent resistance is the only way to free themselves from the oppressors and be part of a strong nation again. They clash with each other and naturally with the Empire, particularly when the tribes in the jungle are involved. These tribes communicate with their dead and refuse to be controlled in the way that city-dwellers are, so the Assari often try to slaughter or imprison them in order to cut down on the unpredictability and risk. 

Downum doesn't take the easy path of making the resistance purely good and the Empire rule evil. Members of the resistance are willing to kill civilians who don't side with them, even if those civilians are willing to keep secrets as long as they and their families aren't thrust into the danger that more direct aid would entail. Even knowing that that particular action is out of line, though, it's hard to condemn them entirely-- the Empire has chained the land, committed mass slaughter of the forest clans, and forced many people in the country into slavery so that they can mine gems for holding magic. This is a brutal regime wrapped in the thin mask of pretending to respect the native people, and no amount of Gandhi-esque peaceful resistance would be able to make a dent in that structure in anything less than decades. The rebels want to act before their way of life is wiped out, their more peaceful neighbors want to close their eyes to what is happening even on their own side, and the Empire wants to exploit the country for resources. It's a nasty situation with very few good choices

The magic system is also intriguingly nuanced, though it could be explained in more detail. Isyllt can control and fight the dead, even storing their spirits in her carved diamond ring. Other magicians have access to other forces and spirits besides those of the dead, while Zhirin has a natural blood tie to the river and can make the water rise simply by calling for it. Isyllt's own powers center around the dead spirits, but she can also snatch the final glimpses from their dying eyes or summon the cold of death for her own purposes, everything from application to soothing her own headaches. Even other magicians tread cautiously around her, but her skills are invaluable for discovering the causes of violence. Asheris is an entirely different kettle of fish, with his own background and source of power separating him from most mages; he's dangerous, but held in magical bondage so that he cannot act in his own interests. The fallout from that has clearly made him depressed and shaky but still able to force himself to function, which is a far cry from the normal boredom, furious pride, or utter brokenness exhibited by magical prisoners in many other workers.

The level of realism throughout the story rises and falls, but little details really shine-- when someone attacks Zhirin with a knife, she tries to grab for her attacker's wrist the way shes seen knife fighters do in bouts, and the move fails. She gets cut badly but and nearly stabbed because she's not trained, and has to find a different way out of the situation. It's an entirely solid approach from an untrained young woman without much physical strength or training. That's rarer than it should be in this genre, where people are either so stupid that they try to block a knife with bare palms or somehow win knife fights through the power of the plot needing them to be alive for the next chapter. Downing is also quite careful to include details about the incapacitating effects of bad wounds and poor decisions; cuts don't heal quickly or cleanly, even major characters can be permanently maimed or crippled, and drinking all night means that you'll have poor reflexes for the rest of the evening and a hangover the next morning. The plot can seem contrived at times, but the little details fall into place beautifully.

The red pen:

This lovely cultural richness can get overwhelming, especially when people start tossing around new terms every few pages without contextualizing them much, and there's no glossary to consult to jog your memory-- for that matter, there's no cast of characters. The blurb on the front is from Jacqueline Carey, who writes great thumping tomes that do have a dramatis personae in the front. This book doesn't approach that length, but the sheer intricacy of the political turmoil means that it could have, and as a general rule, it's good to toss in things like a glossary or a cast of characters if that cast is immersed in an unfamiliar language and consists of more than three of so factions. Even if those resources had been present, though, The Drowning City feels like a much longer book that was harshly trimmed down. Exposition comes in slow blocks that bog the story down, and then it vanishes in such a way as to leave the reader unclear as to exactly what's going on in some of the more intricate sequences.

Despite the richness of the setting and the magic system, this book is unfortunately forgettable, in large part because its characters fall flat. The worst offender is Isyllt, who carries a decent majority of the sections and manages to have very little discernible personality. Isylt is resentful about being sent to Symir-- her magical teacher and former lover, Kiril, decided that he was too old for her and sent her away to end the relationship. She describes the sequence of events and mentions that she feels sad upon seeing him during a mirror conversation, but the emotions are always a half-step removed, even when they're supposed to be so intense that she has to drink to forget about it. It's all told in such a way that her vulnerability feels like a plot point to make her ensuing quasi-romance more significant. She flirts with Asheris, an imperial mage-investigator who doesn't know her loyalties-- if he discovered them, she'd be in great danger, but they temporarily unite while they try to solve mysterious civilian murders and seem unable to resist flirting. This sort of dangerous attraction can add spice to narratives of all stripes, but when they start flirting over a fresh corpse and she fakes a catch in her voice and pretends that she needs to lean on him to recover from a bit of magic, it swings sharply over into ridiculous, verging on tacky. Attraction is one thing, but seeing Isyllt potentially compromise her mission by letting him into her mind after that little episode of eyelash-batting makes it harder to take the potential relationship seriously.

Several of the other character have arcs that ought to feel incredibly powerful, but instead fall flat. The largest disappointment here is Zhirin, who serves as one of the two centers of Symir's divided loyalties. Her mother has compromised and serves as a local representative in the Empire-run government, but her lover Jabbor is a young leader in the resistance. He genuinely loves her, but he also needs her knowledge of mages' whereabouts, since she is a student at the largest place of magical learning anywhere near the city. She sways back and forth between her mother and Jabbor, but her central concern is always a pure concern for helping to keep the people of the city and the country safe. She tries to act as she sees best in each moment, which is in some realistic but doesn't really make for terribly divided loyalties. Other people want to help their countrymen and have drastically different ideas about how best to accomplish that goal, but Zhirin is so distanced from specific ideologies that it's a little too easy to grasp the ending point of what ought to be her big dramatic twist. 

Xinai, by contrast, doesn't spend quite enough time in the middle. She was born in Sivahra but fled the country during the early days of the occupation to be safe, and spent the years since then in Selafai, Isyllt's home country. She put her warrior skills to use as a bodyguard and mercenary and found a close companion and lover in Adam, Isyllt's other bodyguard. Returning the country where she felt so much fear after the death of her clan could be a poignant transition, and in some ways it is, but in others it feels like her actions are all foregone conclusions. Old friends and old grudges yank her loyalties away from the life she's painstakingly built for herself, but she barely agonizes over it, even when the people who are supposed to be on her side do very clearly unacceptable things. I've already mentioned the murder of civilians, but by far the most disturbing element comes when Xinai's mother tries to take charge of her daughter's life.

Xinai's mother is  is dead, but her spirit is anchored to the mind and body of her daughter through a ritual performed on her native soil, and she wants the clan to continue. Although Xinai is still missing Adam, her mother tries to take control of her body in order initiate sex and conceive a child with  a young man of the forest clans. There's not a good snappy phrase for exactly what that is, but secondhand attempted rape via forced possession isn't a bad stab at it. Xinai is angry at the time and tells her mother not to do that, but she continues to trust her mother's advice and even goes along with the idea of that sex a few days later. It's presented as disturbing, but only as one incident in a line of strange transitions-- panicking about it wouldn't have been like her, but the odd blind spot feels overly convenient. She's lived as an adult for quite some time and seen situations in other lands, but as soon as she comes back home, it's as though her every decision is inevitable, even though she has an ally and a former close lover nearby in the city and could leave if she wanted to, though it would be difficult. Seeing her slide back into old loyalties so easily make the interesting minor character she was in the first few chapters vanish, as though all her growth since she left the country was little more than a hiccup.

On the whole, The Drowning City is solid enough to indicate that the author will do great things in the future, and the setting is as lushly rich as the jungle where so much of the action takes place. It doesn't quite take advantage of its short length-- things happen quickly, but in a skittering and overburdened sequence of events instead of the flood of tension that the work could have been.

Prospects: This is the first book in Downum's The Necromancer Chronicles. The third and most recent, The Kingdoms of Dust, came out in March.

Enjoyed this? Try:
~Raymond Feist and Janny Wurts's Daughter of the Empire is more strongly Chinese-influenced, but it handles the question of how far it's safe or ethical to go in pursuit of revenge in a good case than The Drowning City does. 
~Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn doesn't cover exactly the same culture, but the level of immersion and reverence for tradition is similar.

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