I was going to start out this review of K.M. McKinley’s The City of Ice (2016) by saying that I could pretty much cut and paste the first paragraph of my review of its predecessor The Iron Ship, since it matched exactly what I’d say about The City of Ice. But then I realized why say I could when I actually can do that. So here it is, with some edits.
Iron Ship City of Ice is a sprawling, slow build of a story that mostly follows the POV exploits of five siblings whose stories generally wend their own way. With its large cast, leisurely characterization, separate plots, unhurried approach to worldbuilding, and focus on an accretion of detail (admittedly, sometimes to a somewhat befuddling amount), I can’t say McKinley’s debut sequel is particularly energetic or compelling. But it does suck you in (again), even if The City of Ice feels its length a bit more than The Iron Ship did.
The setting is “Earth” (not ours), a world with a sister planet known as the Twin that is edging ever nearer as part of a millennia-long cycle. It’s also a world whose gods (most of them) were expelled from the huge “Godhome” by one of the main character’s ancestors. While The Iron Ship centered its action mostly in The Hundred Kingdoms — a burgeoning industrial society with magic — The City of Ice offers up two additional settings. One is a sort of pocket dimension where lies the Castle of Mists, home to the Morfaan — a powerful race whose great civilization mysteriously fell millennia ago, but who reenter the world periodically via two representatives (a brother and sister) who stay in a kind of suspended animation until their services are required. The other setting is the south polar ocean, being traversed by the first book’s titular ship, bent on exploring an ancient Morfaan city that supposedly remains in pristine condition, making it a potentially rich source of older technology/sorcery [warning: spoilers for book one ahead]
- Rel: a soldier posted at the edge of the Kingdoms
- Garten: a government bureaucrat sent to Perus City for the choosing of the next High Legate and the arrival of the Morfaan
- Trassan: the brilliant engineer responsible for building the great ship and overseeing the polar exploration
- Aarin: a “Guider” whose job it is to send the dead on to the next stage
- Guis: a failed mageborn who was possessed by a creature toward the end of book one
- Katriona: a businesswoman fighting the bias against her gender even as she attempts to force the other merchants into better treating their employees/indentured workers
Other important characters include:
- Madelyne, a young girl chosen by the Duke Infernal (a “lesser” god), for what purpose we don’t know until some time after she is selected, though let’s just say those who enjoyed 50 Shades of Grey will enjoy this as well
- Shrane: a witch whose role is to prepare the way for the Iron Gods to return
- Ilona: another Kressind family member who stows away aboard the polar ship, and a Tyn (a non-human race that can wield a different sort of magic, many of whom have been forced into near-slavery) named Issy. Did I mention the story was sprawling?
Valatrice: a talking dog on the the polar expedition
There are three major storylines: the arrival of the Morfaan in Perus during the choosing of the High Legate, the journey to the southern pole and the subsequent exploration of the Morfaan city, and Madelyne’s time with the Infernal Duke. Minor plot lines include Katriona’s attempt at labor reform, Airin’s mission to learn why the dead are becoming difficult to move on, and a few others. And behind it all lies the threat of the Iron Gods’ return, though I won’t say much about that to avoid spoilers. Did I mention it was sprawling?
As noted in in the intro above, The City of Ice moves a bit slowly, as did The Iron Ship. Unlike book one though, The City of Ice did, I thought, lag now and then, and the shift among the many POVs felt a bit more scattershot. Some of the characters are given pretty short shrift, with Trassan, Garten, and Madelyn getting the lion’s share of time. The lack of story space at times does a bit of a disservice to the more brief narratives in terms of their impact or how compelling they are. Part of me wanted them be longer and more frequent (odd as that is to say about a book that feels a little overlong) or to be held over for the next book and covered more fully. Rel’s story, for instance, feels wholly disconnected both geographically and narratively, while Katriona’s, despite some strong moments, feels like it doesn’t quite mine its full potential. A somewhat related issue was what seemed a lack of balance when I sometimes wondered if I really needed all the detail I was getting about something that didn’t seem particularly important to either story or character.
That said, overall there is a scope, a depth, and richness to the novel that makes up for its sometimes too slow pace or scattershot structure. McKinley throws a lot at the reader — and it’s possible it might be too much — but if it doesn’t all hold together seamlessly, it’s still bracing in its ambition. The world is entirely fascinating, growing increasingly so as more of it is slowly revealed. And McKinley deals with some big issues here, such as the impact of industrialization on people and the environment, labor issues (obviously), issues of class and governance, science and religion, bigotry, and abuse of power. The City of Ice does have a bit of a “bridge book” issue, but only to a small degree. It answers some questions from The Iron Ship, raises others, and leaves you looking forward to the next book, meaning I stick with my recommendation to pick the GATES OF THE WORLD series up, with fair warning that it does require a patient reader.