I did something incredibly stupid a couple of weeks back. I requested a review copy of Ian Whates' City of Hope & Despair, without realizing that is was the second book in a series. I hadn't read the first part, City of Dreams & Nightmare yet. So I ordered a copy of book one and I'm going to do something I generally avoid on Random Comments: review two books by one author in a row. City of Dreams & Nightmare is Whates' debut novel, he has quite a bit of short fiction to his name though. I haven't read any of his work before so I didn't know what to expect. As it turns out, Whates likes his fantasy with a bit of steampunk on the side and most important, he spares me the ordeal of reading a second book when I didn't like the first. City of Dreams & Nightmare is quite a fun read.
The story is set in Thaibulrey, the city of a hundred rows. It is a vertical city with dozens of levels. Once a wonder of technology, it has been hit hard by a war in its recent past. The city now emanates an atmosphere of decline. Not surprisingly, the higher up in the city you live, the higher your status. At the very bottom reside the poor in what is called the City Below. On the heights, the ruling class of Arkademics reside, in the company it is said, of the demons themselves.
The opening of the story finds young thief Tom on his way up in the city. His gang controls a section of the City Below but tonight Tom is out for bigger game. On his way up he witnesses the murder of one of the city's Arkademics by one of his colleagues. Despite Tom's trick to make people overlook him if he doesn't want to be seen, he is spotted by the murderer. Obviously not pleased with this witness he pursues Tom. The young thief calls of his mission for the night and starts a desperate run for the relative safety of the City Below. What follows will turn Tom's life upside down and change the city forever.
City of Dreams & Nightmare is a book that reads very quickly. Whates' style is to the point, he keeps his plot moving at a good pace. The setting is obviously meant to create a fantastical atmosphere in the novel but Whates doesn't indulge in long descriptions. He keeps the focus on the story and his characters without digressing too much. The city would not be possible without magic and a whole bunch of mysterious machinery and Whates leaves all manner of hints throughout the novel. There's a police force that uses cloaks to do things that defy gravity for instance, a necessity to move quickly between the many levels of the city. Waste management, transport and supplying the huge city all have to take vertical dimension of the city into account. Despite that, the history and inner workings of the city remain something of a mystery. We don't learn all that much about the past of the city either. For people who like their fantasy to include a generous measure of worldbuilding it might be a bit disappointing. It looks like Whates intends to explore some of these issues further in future volumes.
We see most of the story though the eyes of people what are pawns in a very large and dangerous game. Tom clearly has some magical talent. He doesn't seem to understand what he is doing but others have clearly noticed. His presence at the murder scene may seem accidental early on in the book, later on we find out it is anything but. This lack of understanding of what is going on around them also goes for two of the three other important characters, independent street fighter Kat and Kite Guard Tylus are also clearly unaware of the stakes of the game they are involved in. Only assassin and right hand man of the murdering Arkademic, Dewar seems to be a bit wiser in the ways of this fantasy world. The way the author manages to convey the general idea of what is going on over the heads of our heroes is quite well done. I didn't get the idea I was missing thing although it would have been nice to have some of the machinations in the higher rows of the city a little more visible.
Despite there being several characters that get a point of view, Tom is the one the story revolves around. He's very young, his exact age isn't mentioned but apparently he has only recently discarded to opinion that girls are stupid. If I had to guess I'd say about fourteen. He's pretty naive about a lot of things and that is one of his endearing qualities. It does clash a bit with the way he's spent his youth. Tom is apparently an orphan and he is part of a gang that survives by extorting local traders, robbery and theft. Violence, prostitution and crime are part of Tom's direct environment. He's simply too soft to really fit in that world. The author uses this to point out Tom is destined for a different life and to a point this works. I still feel his youth should have scarred him a little more than we get to see in this novel. He strikes me as a bit too pure.
City of Dreams & Nightmare is mostly a quick, fun read. It is not particularly a challenging read and in terms of worldbuilding, I feel Whates leaves a lot of aspects of the city and the world surrounding it a bit underdeveloped. He doesn't quite fulfil the potential his creation offers. That being said, there will be more books in this series and obviously there has to be something left to explore. Tom and Kat's flight through the City Below, trying to keep a step ahead of the nameless players that would see them killed is a thrilling experience. One that has convinced me to see if Whates can put a bit more meat on the bones of his story in the next volume.
Title: City of Dreams & Nightmare
Author: Ian Whates
Publisher: Angry Robot
Format: Mass Market Paperback
First published: 2010