For a novel titled The City (2013), we see surprisingly little of the Stella Gemmell’s eponymous setting itself, save for its labyrinthine underground tunnels and sewers. But there’s no doubt the city sits at the center of this patiently-developed, detailed work thanks to its ongoing and seemingly endless war against the enemies that ring its lands and its internal dissensions as some of its most powerful citizens begin to chafe under the leadership of the Immortal.
The City begins from the point of view of a young brother (Elija) and sister (Emly) who live in one of the many communities in the sewers of the city. It’s a purposefully gritty and grim opening, as it sets the reader up with a particular view of the City — this is not a place that takes care of its most vulnerable and seeing it through these young children’s eyes we’re predisposed to root against maintenance of the status quo. The siblings are eventually separated, with Emly ending up with a former general of the city (once Shuskara now known as Bartellus) now disgraced and thrown down from his great height. Elija, meanwhile, is caught up by the Blues, the generic term for the City’s diverse enemies.
We then shift to the military side of things, outside of the city on one of the battleplains, where we follow a pair of soldiers: Indaro, a young female soldier and Fell Aaron Lee, an up-and-coming young commander. Eventually all these characters will become embroiled in a conspiracy to bring the endless war to an end by the only means they think will work — assassinating the Emperor (assuming of course someone called “The Immortal” can be killed). Along the way toward the convergence of events, we pick up several other POV characters, shift back and forth between the city and outside the city, and also shift back and forth in time as we flash back to some of the events that have brought these characters to these points.
Stella Gemmell takes her time with building her story and introducing her characters, and those looking for quick-paced action would do well to reset their expectations. I thought Gemmell handled this quite well — the pace is patient but not slow, at least not in my mind. The battle scenes are lengthy and highly detailed, but that sense of detail, almost historic or academic in places, helps immerse the reader and so negates any risk of bogging down (as opposed to vague battle scenes that go on and on with lots of generic fighting).
The characters vary a bit in their presentation and depth, but the major ones, especially Bartellus and Indaro are vividly drawn and given levels of depth, with the most emotionally affective storyline being the relationship between Bartellus and Emly. The explanation of some of the other relationships between characters is sometimes revealed via flashbacks, which I liked for how it withheld some information, but it could have been handled a bit more smoothly in a few places. And while we meet some of the City’s enemies and get some history of why they are enemies, I wouldn’t have minded a little more broad-based context on this history.
The revelation of the Emperor’s background, as well as the “Families” that founded the city with him, gets hinted at via legends and rumors early and then is made more explicit at the very end. It’s an intriguing explanation that could have perhaps used some more page time. I did like the subtle, metaphorical aspect of the conclusion where we see characters who had been at the literal bottom of the City’s social ladder, either from the start or after being flung downward, climb upward into the rarefied power structures at the top. It’s a very nice example of the literal and metaphorical working together in service of story and theme.
If I had any complaints about The City, it would be the ending, the only part of the book where I felt the pacing suffered. It dragged out a bit in places and then felt abrupt in others. And it felt somewhat anti-climactic as well in comparison to much of what had come prior.
But really, that was my only complaint and it’s relevant to only the last 50 pages or so, if that. Otherwise, Gemmell had me immersed in the story and characters from the very start. Not all POV sections are equally interesting or moving, but I wouldn’t characterize any of them as uninteresting or weak. The story resolves itself but leaves a lot of room for a sequel, something I’d be interested in picking up. The City didn’t blow me away, but it gained my attention immediately and easily kept it throughout the 500 or so pages. Recommended. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, Stella Gemmell is David Gemmell’s widow.