Stella Gemmell’s The City is a strange book. It’s difficult to say why it’s strange without going into spoiler territory, but suffice to say that it is strange but the strangeness is a good thing — you never quite understand exactly what the book’s about until you get to the end, and that’s what keeps you reading.
On the face of it, the plot is simple enough. There’s an ancient city — only ever referred to as ‘The City’, even in dialogue — that has been at war with its many enemies, collectively known as ‘The Blues’, for years. The City has started to fall into ruin and its enemies have devised a plot to take down the emperor, Araeon ‘The Immortal’.
The plot involves a huge cast of characters, with suitably Heroic Fantasy genre names like Bartellus, Fell Aron Lee, Marcellus Vincerus, Indaro, and Archange. Some characters even take second names, just in case the existing cast wasn’t comprehensive enough for you, and some even take second, and third, bodies (dum dum dummmmmm).
If the thought of so many characters concerns you, worry not, for as quickly as Gemmell introduces them, she often just as quickly dispatches them. Her writing may not be as brutal as George R.R. Martin’s, but she’s certainly as efficient in trimming down her cast. A fact the book benefits from as you get the feeling any peril in which the characters find themselves is real, which keeps things interesting.
There is a magic element to The City, but it’s fairly understated. We’re not talking about mages running around shooting fireballs from their fingers, lightning from their eyes, or… bees from their mouths (is that one? I’m not convinced that is one), but rather it focuses on just a few characters — a race known as The Serafim — who have peculiar abilities to do… what, exactly? It’s actually quite difficult to tell (I did say it was understated) but the basics appear to be an outrageously long lifespan (there’s a reason the emperor is known as The Immortal) and emitting a humming sound that makes people just explode.
One of the things I found most interesting in The City was the number, and importance, of female characters. It seems rare in this genre to find an abundance of dangerous, powerful women, and the inclusion of many female characters makes for a much more balanced, authentic world. The women of The City aren’t just politicians, administrators, carers, or young girls in need of rescuing (although they are those things too), they’re soldiers — they’re killers.
Gemmell obviously felt compelled to explain how that came about and puts in several sections of back story on bringing women into The City’s army, as well as constantly reiterating throughout the book that it was A Big Thing that there are female soldiers — but to me this felt superfluous.
This is a novel set in a fantasy world with its own history, traditions, and rules (people can be made to EXPLODE at will, for crying out loud), and we, as readers, just accept this without having to have it rationalised. We accept the reality with which we are presented, so if we are shown a world where women are every bit as deadly, every bit as vital to an army, as men, then we shouldn’t need someone to justify how or why that could be plausible. What hope is there if an author has to pander to someone saying, “Oh, now look here — I was absolutely on board with this fellow making someone combust just by humming, but a lady with a sword — that really is too much!”
There’s a lot of back story in The City. It’s a book that starts off about Emly and Elija, two children living in the sewers, looked after by an aging ex-soldier named Bartellus, before jumping forward nearly a decade to tell us the story of Indaro — one of those pesky sword-wielding women — and her commanding officer Fell Aron Lee. There are several chapters dedicated to the back story of Fell, jumping back and forth between his present day situation and his life as a youngster brought into The City. This hopping back and forth along the timeline happens throughout the book but manages to avoid being a distraction and reveals much about the central narrative.
Some people have a real problem with back story. Literary agent Jonny Geller tweeted in May, ‘“Back story” is called “back story” for a reason. Keep it back. #writetip’ to which one Twitter user responded, quite brilliantly, ‘Please could you let Star Wars know.’
In any case, I happen to disagree with Geller. I think, provided it is well-handled, then back story can be an enjoyable part of any book and, in the case of The City, it all feels like it should be there.
With so many characters and multiple storylines spanning various timelines, the ending was always going to be difficult to pull off, but for the most part I think it was well done. Everyone comes together for the final scenes and the key story elements reach a fairly solid conclusion.
That said, it does leave one or two questions unanswered and there were a couple of plotlines hinted at early on that were never realised, while the character Archange’s explanation of certain actions by Marcellus right at the end felt a little thin.
In keeping with the book overall, the ending was somewhat strange and left an odd taste. It becomes blurred as to whose side we should really be on and it’s hard to tell if the ending is a happy one. I suppose, really, this is a story about four characters in particular, Emly and Elija, Indaro and Fell — and their stories all reach a satisfying conclusion.
I’m keen to read more by Stella Gemmell. Given the amount of back story she has put into The City, I’d be surprised if more novels set in this world didn’t materialise, though I wouldn’t expect them to follow any of the same characters or storyline. That story has been sufficiently told.
You can read an excerpt of The City here.