City of Light and Shadow by Ian Whates
When you set off to write a fantasy novel, one of the first questions you have to ask yourself is what style of language you propose to use. Why the language? you ask. In the flesh, the strangeness of any fantasy world would be communicated by the look and feel of the clothes people wear, the way they walk and move, the architecture of the buildings they live in, the spectrum of aromas wafting on the breeze from the middens and shops selling exotic perfumes, the music you hear, and so on. For the author, there are only words in which to capture and express the otherness of this culture. In doing so, there’s a general trend to adopt a mediaeval level of technology. That seems to fit into our more general preconceptions about a period in which magic might have worked. When it comes to the inevitable fighting, the warriors are equipped with armour, swords and daggers with which to fight. Ranks and classes are also easier to manage in less developed societies. That just leaves the naming system and how the different classes will speak to each other.
It will feel wrong if Hank asks Bert who he fancies for the next fight in the tourney. It’s also necessary to take pity on the readers whose patience will be sorely tested if everyone has names like N’Marnk Lsynspem (or some other combination, mainly involving consonants). The more the author inserts “foreign language” names and phrases, the less a reader will understand unless he or she can be persuaded to invest the effort to learn it. You never know, this might prove to be another The Lord of the Rings with thousands prepared to learn Elvish or Star Trek with even more now speaking Klingon like natives. But, for most practical purposes, keeping it simple is best. Except you probably need an everyday form of speech for the taverns and marketplaces, with a higher form of language for the upper classes. So it would be, “May the Goddess bless you and give you good health. . .” and “How the breck have you been, you wrinkled ginger nut?” or something.
I raise all this because, in the trilogy City of a Hundred Rows, Ian Whates has a multitude of different groups who need to talk to each other and, to complicate matters, a walking talking Goddess who will teach you stuff while on ice in an isolation tank. Now, these folk could exchange their thoughts in an everyday speech, ’nuff said. Or there could be all kinds of subtle little signals to show higher or lower status, respect or the lack of it, and so on. In the end, our author abandons the problem and everyone talks in a fairly contemporary British English with the odd outburst of slang. This gives the text a rather functional tone. Apart from a few foreign names like M’gruth, we’re along for the ride with fairly recognisable characters like Tom, Kat and Dewar as the plot continues apace.
City of Light and Shadow (Angry Robot, 2012) is the final volume in the trilogy although there are more than enough strands left hanging that there could be further adventures if sales justify it. It’s the role of this book to bring everything to a satisfactory conclusion. Where necessary, explanations must be given and expectations fulfilled. In the traditional form, we carry on directly from events in City of Hope and Despair with Tom and Mildra spending quality time with Thaiss (worshipped as a Goddess by her faithful flock), while Kat and Tylus are readying the combined forces of Tattooed Men and Kite Guard to enter the Stain in pursuit of the Soul Thief and Insint. For those who come new to this story, there are two immortals, possibly Gods or people with very effective technology on their side. When they built the city Thaiburley, they inserted a core as a source of “magical” power. Those able to tune into it, can heal the sick and achieve other socially useful outcomes. Except, the male God is alleged to have corrupted the core. This is undermining the quality of life in the city. Thaiss therefore sends Tom on a mission to restore the core to its normal functioning. Needless to say, a small army is lining up to stop this.
The book therefore follows Tom’s attempt to infiltrate enemy territory to access the core while the forces of good fight demonkind under the city (these are actually human-mechanical hybrids rather than the real demons who live in the top of the city). The lone figure outside the city is Dewar who makes it to the Misted Isles and then has to start off back to Thaiburley.
Taken overall, this is a rousing end to the trilogy with plenty of fighting, most of which is credible given what we know about the current levels of technology as it interfaces with the magical systems enabled by the core. There’s no doubt about Ian Whates’ ability to create a good story although, in real narrative terms, there’s a certain disconnection between the Dewar thread and the rest of the story. It’s perhaps only relevant if he goes on to write another in the series. My hesitation in giving City of Light and Shadow an absolute endorsement as a must-read is the rather pedestrian language. As an old guy, I’m probably the wrong person when it comes to judging what the majority of current readers will enjoy. This book gets the job done in simple, no-nonsense terms and, perhaps, that’s as much as the majority of readers want, particularly as the last book in the trilogy. For what it’s worth, my preference remains wedded to the slightly heightened use of language in more traditional fantasy novels. Now you have the facts, it’s your choice whether to buy.
As an aside, Ian Whates is the power behind the small press NewCon Press which has some excellent books on offer.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.