Monday, January 17, 2011

Ex Libris: Amanda Downum's The Drowning City

"Come for the city, stay for the revolution."

There are fantasy books and there are fantasy books. There are big epic-sized door-stopper tales written by well-known authors: the late Jordan, Martin, Erikson, Bakker, Abercrombie, etc. And there are single, stand-alones (with possible sequels) that may or may not repay you your invested reading time back. But then again, that's always the risk you take when you read a book, isn't?

With Amanda Downum's The Drowning City (Orbit), I gambled on the fact that it's a story set in an exotic city and I've always loved a good city tale. Admittedly, it took me a couple of years before I finally picked up a copy. I now regret not doing so earlier as Downum has written a rousing story of intrigues and killings and revolutions and family and ghosts... lots of ghosts. And did I mention there's a well-realized city in the tale, too?

Symir is a port city caught between politics and imperial powers, under the thumb of a corrupt southern empire of Assari intent on invading the northern lands and boiling with the anger of its oppressed subjects. The northern necromancer Isyllt Iskaldur from the king of Selafai has been sent to the city together with her two bodyguards to try to foment unrest in the city. She has the money and the willpower; unfortunately, in a land where the dead won't rest well, it may not be enough as she faces assassins, guerrillas and even ghosts who aren't that happy with the foreign presence on the native soil.

But Isyllt isn't the only POV in the story as Downum also provides POVs of other characters, one of them being her bodyguard who's also an exile of Symir and a young apprentice finding rebellion and romance in the arms of a revolutionary. On the other hand, other non-POV characters like a imperial nobleman with a secret that could kill Isyllt and a ghost waiting for the return of her daughter provide a few mysteries seeded throughout the narration to keep the reader glued to the book.

There are several things good going about Downum's debut novel. Chief among them is the well-realized city of Symir, with its canal thoroughfares, its ghost temples, and its monsoon rains. Its other main strength is its story: througout the tale, Downum manages retain the interest of the reader as she juggles the different POVs in order to tell the story of Symir. The characters are well-rounded with no one striking enough to stand out but neither are any flat with each having their own reasons and motivations. The setting itself is a well-crafted secondary fantasy world with her own created language interspersed with the narrative, dangerous creatures that roam the waters and the jungle, and ghosts that can still force their will on the people that they love.

Moreover, Downum manages to imagine perfectly a crash of cultures between the oppressed native people of Symir and its invaders, with those reluctantly trying to live under the colonial powers against those secretly active in trying to overthrow the imperial overlords (and the resulting family divisiveness and tragedies that occur in such a setup). Here, Downum does it better than Laura Resnick's In Legend Reborn, the latter that tried to do a similar theme of an oppressed people living under the colonial boot but ended up being too dry a narration.

It's not perfect as I thought the ending felt a bit rushed. However, Downum's book reminds me why I read fantasy books and why I take a chance on unknown books that catch my attention. In this case, it's fully justified and a good start for the reading year. (Rating: 3 paws out of 4.)

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