The City, by Stella Gemmell
Where do I start with Stella Gemmell’s The City? I suppose with getting any thoughts of preconceptions out of the way – Stella Gemmell is not her late husband, but saying that, she did work closely with him on a number of David’s works, and completed his final novel in the Troy series after his untimely death. So, although it’s not a given, Stella Gemmell certainly has pedigree in the world of writing epic fantasy. The book also comes with a big claim on the front cover from an author whose own works I have read and mostly enjoyed – James Barclay citing The City as being “easily the best fantasy novel I’ve read in the last decade.”
So, coupled with a blurb which appealed to my fantasy tastes, I was really looking forward to reading The City and can now report the following: Stella is most definitely not David Gemmell, and (each to their own tastes aside) James Barclay has presumably not read any fantasy novels in the last ten years. Now don’t get me wrong, The City is not necessarily a bad book, it’s just that it’s not quite a good book either. Reading through its 550 pages, I almost got the impression that Stella Gemmell was trying to show things in their natural light – people doing boring things, randomly losing people never to hear from them again, things taking up a lot of time but ultimately not being done for any pertinent reason. The problem is, this doesn’t really work in a novel, as readers are looking to be entertained. Obviously it’s entirely possible that these few things I’ve picked out were not intentional, but I like to think they were, and their inclusion was just an error of judgement rather than poor overall writing.
Onto the book itself, there are some decent enough characters, and some of them have decent enough storylines. For me, the book would have been well served following Fell Aron Lee’s backstory more closely, rather than having this as a little flashback, as it has a big impact on the overall story and is also a heck of a lot more interesting than that of Shuskara/Bartellus and his fascination with the Eating Gate. Surely for this, it’s enough to know that the City engineers stopped maintaining the sewer’s weirs, without spending half the book following the old soldier around the library trying to find out why?
Some characters are maybe not so well rounded, but considering how various players are treated, this is perhaps not so much a surprise. You have Elijah, who we open the novel with and begin to presume as the main character, or one of them. Not so the case here though, as Elijah takes the first opportunity he gets to disappear with strangers for more than half the book rather than search for his apparently not-too-beloved sister. Then there’s Stalker, who is portrayed a few times as loyal and willing to follow anywhere, but he doesn’t come through one passageway and we’re not privy to the reasons why – did he follow but not make it through? Did he suddenly decide he couldn’t be bothered? Is he still standing on the other side waiting for his companions to return, like some secondary group character in a role-playing game?
Other than this injustice to characters, and the tedium of much of the first half to three-quarters of the novel, I found there were just too many parts that didn’t sound quite right. There’s the rainstorm that’s so bad that people drown on a battlefield because the water level gets too high so quickly they can’t prepare themselves for it. There’s half the Emperor’s palace underwater because of the failing sewers (it’s quite a wet book) although the rest of the City generally seems to be ok – surely they wouldn’t let the palace fall so badly to the water? There’s a random eight year jump just when we’re starting to get into things, although this jump isn’t made apparent until after we’ve met another of our characters and started to wonder if we’ve missed a page or two because of the change in circumstances.
Finally (or at least in so much as I’m going to discuss), there’s an artefact described as the most powerful in the world. Something so powerful that we’re never given an indication of what it does or how it does it. An item so powerful that if we weren’t told of it’s power at the end of the book, we’d have been fooled into thinking it was just a mundane item of clothing. An item so powerful that once it has been recovered, it’s then gifted to someone to look after as if it actually was just a mundane item of clothing. This item could have been completely written out of the story with barely a change being made, so it seemed strange to have this revelation about it coming towards the end of the book.
My overriding feeling towards The City is disappointment, plain and simple. It was a book I was looking forwards to so much, had so much promise and, indeed with some of the story, so much potential, but it just failed to fulfil any of it. I’ve read several reviews and it seems the general consensus is that people love The City, but it just goes to show you can’t please everyone all the time. For me, too much of the book just didn’t work and too many questions were left unanswered. One final thought – title the book The City by all means, but surely the people who live there would have given it a name rather than just referring to their home as “the City” as well?
Overall: A disappointing solo debut from a legendary name. Focusses too much on all the wrong things and doesn’t leave enough room to focus on the right ones.
Dominish rating: 51%