City of Last Chances by Adrian Tchaikovsky
City of Last Chances (2022), by Adrian Tchaikovsky, is one of those novels that I completely admired all the way through but had a hard time connecting to many of the characters, so that while the reading experience was enjoyable, it was more an intellectual pleasure than an immersive, emotional one.
The novel is set in the titular city of Ilmar, suffering under the heavy boot of an occupation force left over from the city’s conquest three years earlier by the Palleseen, a people who seek “perfection” in themselves and others via “correct principles of law and thought.” While the city seems stable on the surface, it seethes with anger, resentment, greed, and ambition as various factions have their own view of what resistance looks like and who should lead any eventual rebellion should one occur, as well as who should benefit from it. These factions are not new-born from the conquest, but are long-standing opposed forces in the city: the criminal underworld, who have found little difference in the scorn with which they are treated by the overthrown duke and his aristocracy or the victorious Palleseen; the Armigers, the old families more concerned with a return to power rather than a return to independence; and the Siblingries, the factory workers who toil for the conquerors as they did for the upper classes before and feel oppressed by both. In the mix are the idealistic students of Gownhall University; the Allorwen, a downtrodden and mistrusted group of refugees from a land conquered earlier by the Palleseen; and most mysterious of all, the Indwellers, the enigmatic people who control the ways in and out of the Anchorwood, an ancient grove that acts as a portal through to other worlds for those who can pay the price of safe transport.
Soon into the novel, someone steals an important artifact, and the theft acts as a catalyst, throwing a match into the gasoline-soaked kindling of the city and sparking an outburst of violence that surprises everyone. The protagonists in this complex stew include, but aren’t limited to:
- Blackmane: An Allorwen conjurer and pawnbroker of ancient and sometimes magical items
- Yasnic: Last priest of his particular god, whom only he can see
- Langrice: owner/barkeep of the Anchorage, the tavern with some sort of connection to the Anchorwood
- Hellgram: the bouncer at the Anchorage, a magic-user, and a foreigner come via the Anchorwood accidentally
- Lemya: a student of Gownhall and idealistic patriot
- Maestro Ivarn Ostravar: a teacher at Gownhall
- Father Orvechin: leader of the Siblingries
- Aullaime: Allorwen conjurer who works for the Siblingries
- Carella and Evene (the “Bitter Sisters”): the powerful pair of criminal overlords
- Ruslav: enforcer for the Bitter Sisters
- Fleance: a thief
As you can see from that only partial list, we’re working with a lot of characters here. And rarely are more than two or three together at a time, which means a number of sub-plots peppering the over-arching dual narrative of the search for the stolen item and the possible rebellion against the Palleseen.
The world Tchaikovsky presents is absolutely fascinating. Despite its tight focus geographically, because the characters come from different regions, cultures, and even worlds/dimensions, the novel offers up a rich stew of highly original elements: different types of magic, belief systems, governing systems, along with other basic magical tropes such as portals and curses, etc. We get tantalizing glimpses of all these without a lot of info dumps or an unnecessary amount of detail, and while I don’t mind exhaustive world-building, there’s something to be said for this method as well, which offers up a bit of mystery to nicely complement the fantastical.
Those different cultures and beliefs also create a good foundation for the tension that underlies the whole novel beyond the obviously occupiers-occupied conflict as the various factions battle for power and long-standing mistrust of “the other” (of which there are many) rises up again and again. The “underdog uprising” always lies on the horizon of promise, but the way in which everyone has their own agenda here — as groups and/or as individuals — constantly interferes with any attempt at serious revolution, as well as allowing room for thoughtful exploration of serious topics such as labor-owner conflict, the refugee experience, fascism, colonialism, the desperation of poverty, and more.
Besides these overt prejudices, the resistance also has its blind spots. One of my favorite moments is when we learn that the laborers, whom we’ve been conditioned to root for, are themselves oppressors, as what runs their mills are magically enslaved demons. And so we get sharply moving passages like this:
Not that there wasn’t a part of him that wouldn’t have shaken that demon’s taloned hand like a brother, but that would have been a step too far. And so he watched the beast being enslaved to them ills again and knew that even as he fought every day for a better life for his people, he was a collaborator in a larger war. And he hated it.
Nor does Tchaikovsky shirk his villains, the Palleseen, in terms of complexity, as we see factions and competition amongst the occupiers as well — people jockeying for position, people trying to move up in the ranks or having differing views toward the “taboo” local customs.
The plot is complicated but not overly so, and takes some unexpected twists and turns even beyond the way you’re never sure what someone will do thanks to the aforementioned tensions and ambitions. It does move slowly, especially during the first half or so of the novel, partially because so many characters need to be introduced, and the structure — multiple points of view moving serially one to the other — slows pace a bit as well thanks to the sheer number. I confess at times I felt I was making little forward progress, though I never considered giving up. Finally for the positives, the prose is sharp and vivid and a good match for the fertile creativity of the plot and world-building.
My single issue with City of Last Chances was, as noted in the intro above, my inability to really connect with the characters beyond one or two. Don’t get me wrong; they were all interesting. Rich, complex, well-characterized. But something — possibly the number of them, possibly the structure which had me shifting from one to the other, maybe their own often guarded nature — created a sense of distance. The exception for me was Yasnic, who won me over pretty immediately and for whom I had a soft spot all the way through to the end.
How well one engages with characters is of course a classic YMMV element, so my inability to do so is more an observation than a criticism, and, since as I said above, I both enjoyed and admired City of Last Chances, it’s an easy book to recommend.