The City by Stella Gemmell
Built up over the millennia, layer upon layer, the City is ancient and vast. Over the centuries, it has sprawled beyond its walls, the cause of constant war with neighbouring peoples and kingdoms, laying waste to what was once green and fertile.
And at the heart of the City 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 small number have come to a desperate conclusion: that the only way to stop the ceaseless slaughter is to end the emperor’s unnaturally long life.
From the rotting, flood-ruined 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 pin their hopes on one man. A man who was once the emperor’s foremost general. A man, a revered soldier, who could lead an uprising and unite the City. But a man who was betrayed, imprisoned, tortured and is now believed to be dead…
There is a corruption that reaches to the very core of The City. For generations there has been nothing but war. Countless thousands have lost their lives, as battle after battle has created nothing but more dead bodies.
I rather like the way that this book is split into a number of sections, each one focusing on a different level of society. The story begins at the very bottom with those poor souls who can descend no further. They barely survive in the ancient ruined sewers, living in the darkness and filth. Next the action moves to the ranks of the Immortal’s armies. Finally we get to learn what is going on with the walls of the City itself. In each location we find numerous people who want to see an end to the current regime.
Often when I’m reading epic fantasy fiction, there tends to be a standout character, not so in the case of The City. This novel really works because it’s an ensemble piece. There are a plethora of well-defined, superbly-executed characters that inhabit this novel. From Bartellus, the grizzled old man, who finds himself responsible for a child he never wanted, to Fell Aron Lee, the highly decorated soldier who has to face a growing realisation that the war he is fighting isn’t the just cause he thought it was. The author breathes real life into these individuals making it impossible not to get caught up in their lives.
My only real criticism is that I don’t think that I could recommend this to anyone with a short attention span, there is so much going on here. This novel demands you pay attention to everything that is going on in every single scene. For example there are a couple of characters who, for plot related reasons which I’ll not divulge here, change their names. If you’re going to get put off by things like that then you would be wise to give this a miss. Personally though, I loved it. Like the City itself, there are a myriad of layers in this story to discover.
The individual journeys that each of the various characters take all turn out to be important. The author takes the opportunity to play around with the novel’s timeline. Things aren’t always linear and there are a couple of occasions when scenes are repeated but from a differing perspectives. These multiple viewpoints help to very effectively establish the whole story rather than just one character’s take on it.
I’ll be honest, it did take me a while to get into The City, but once I did I really found that I enjoyed it. Things start at quite a slow pace but gradually they build and the solid writing drew me in. There was a wonderful moment about half way through where everything just suddenly clicked and I found myself absolutely hooked. By following the various factions attempting to realise their plans, there is an ever-growing sense of tension. Even before the final, inevitable, showdown you get the feeling that things are going to get bloody and not everyone is going to make it out of this alive.
Gemmell manages to pull off a rather impressive sleight of hand. She keeps the reader focused on one strand of the story while scattering the plot with subtle clues about what is actually going on elsewhere. It’s only in the final chapters that all the individual story elements are brought together and you realise the true depth of excellent fiction you’ve just read. This is engrossing stuff that’s expertly executed.
For a long time now the name Gemmell has been associated with first-rate fantasy that truly resonates, fantasy that quickly falls into the category of classic. Based on the evidence on display here I don’t see that changing anytime soon.
The City is published by Bantam Press and is available now. I strongly recommend that you check it out. It’s well worth your time.