Fiction Reviews

The City

(2013) Stella Gemmell, Corgi, £7.99, pbk, 700pp, ISBN 978-0-552-16895-3


This is the first solo novel by Stella Gemmell, wife of the late David Gemmell, who fantasy readers will be well aware was one of the best-selling British fantasy authors of recent times. For readers this is a bit of a risk, because although she co-wrote her husbandís last book she has no independent track record. That wouldnít normally be a problem, because first time authors generally have to go through an aggressive sifting process to get anywhere near publication. But you might expect Stella Gemmell to be fast-tracked, given the name she has and the contacts she has undoubtedly made. I was, therefore, wary.

There is a lot going on here. The basic premise is that there is a city under siege by a loose alliance of states (the 'blues' fighting the 'reds' in the city). The siege has been going on for some time, and is mainly due to the warlike aggression of the city, led by an Emperor who is one of a clutch of near-immortals who have ruled for thousands of years and who, over the course of the novel, exhibit powers that help them keep control. Over the years the immortals have interbred with the locals, and so some of the residents of the city have lengthened lifespans and self-healing powers. This is a second-world fantasy, with low level supernatural goings on and a mediaeval level of technology. Oh and a very high body count.

At the start of the book, we loosely follow the storylines of two young people, Elija and Em, who live in the sewers under the city and who become separated in a flood. Em is rescued by Bartellus, who is not what he seems, and Elija escapes with a minor character. Their story takes up the first 98 pages, and although both return (and Em plays a pivotal role in the plot) this book isnít really the story of either of them. The main point of view characters, the warriors Indaro (female) and Fell (male) donít turn up until page 99. They are warriors for the Ďredsí, and fight hard until their capture. At which point the book refocuses, taking the fight back to the city and its warmongering Emperor.

There are a clutch of quotes from appropriately impressive people in the opening pages lauding this book. Unfortunately, the most prominent is by James Barclay, who since he gets the main name check in the acknowledgements as well is clearly closely connected with this work, so this is hardly objective stuff. So, rent-a-quotes. That does not mean the book has no merit, though. However, reviews on Amazon and GoodReads are more measured which suggests a degree of wariness might be justified. Personally I found the story slow and creaky, with a few too many point of view characters. My main issue with it was the lack of clear objective. One minute the main characters are fighting for the City, the next they have switched sides. There is very little logic to much they do (what drives the Emperor? Why was Fell fighting for the City in the first place, given his backstory?), and in the end nothing is really resolved (apart from meeting on of the late-developed sub-objectives). Plus the ending's not really that satisfying. Too many people who should not die get killed off, and some key characters are thrown away just when you want them to be triumphant. All very Game of Thrones, and since everyone in this book keeps praying to the gods of ice and fire, the influences are evident. But George Martin takes ambitious risks, and gets away with them because he is a great writer.

There is a moody, brooding quality to this book that is attractive, though, and Gemmell conveys the sense of entropic decay in the city under eternal siege consistently and evocatively. That is encouraging in a first time novelist, but Gemmell is clearly on a learning curve. With better realised characters and motivations, and a more satisfying end point, this might have earned a recommendation from me. As it is, her next novel might be worth a look.

Mark Bilsborough

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