Fiction Reviews

Blackfish City

(2018) Sam J. Miller, Orbit, £12.99, hrdbk, 329pp, ISBN 978-0-356-51002-6


Killer whales and polar bears nano-bonded to angry outcasts, aiming to tear the city apart to get what they want. That’s basically the story here, set in some post climate-apocalypse Arctic circle floating city where things are slowly but inevitably falling apart and a new, probably genetically engineered disease is killing people in new and intriguing ways.

Quanaaq is a pretty lawless place, nominally run by elected officials, possibly run by ‘shareholders’, the original land barons, or maybe by crime syndicates like the one headed up by Go, lover of Kaev, journeyman fighter and… but that would lead to spoilers. Or maybe the city is actually run by AIs. Or, most likely, the city isn’t actually run at all, but just exists in a state of flux, prodded and poked by whatever interest group is in the ascendant. Martin Podlove is the last of the shareholders and Finn is his grandson. But Finn has the Breaks, a sexually transmitted disease that sends its victims mad by filling their heads with the memories of all the people in the chain of infection. And Finn infects Soq, who works for his grandfather’s enemy Go, which means Go potentially has access to dangerous secrets. Plus others are out for revenge. This all leads to plenty of intrigue, a plot that shifts and tangles.

There are multiple points of view, all around a group of people whose connections eventually become apparent, At first the head hopping (mercifully chapter by chapter) means it is difficult to engage with the story, but once the links become clear they add real depth to the storytelling. The books starts with Fill, heir to Podlove’s fortune and influence, then moves on to Ankit, political functionary rapidly discovering she’s on the losing side, who has a more exotic past as a ‘scaler’, using the buildings and structural arms of Quanaaq for some in-city mountaineering. Then there is Kaev, journeyman fighter with a fractured mind and Soq, teenage messenger of indeterminate gender, both employed by gang boss Go, who has deeper connections to both. And Masaaraq, the woman with the nanobonded Orca, a formidable Inuit fighter on a mission.

All the characters here are broken, fragmented, and this story is about putting back all the pieces. The city itself mirrors the people in it: millions of people surviving a refugee existence and trying to make sense of the new, climate-ravaged world. The prose here is rich and flowing, and the ideas fresh and imaginative. There is plenty of new technology evident in this world, but it is not helping – the Breaks is the result of forces unleashed over which no-one has any real control.

If that all sounds like a depressing novel it is certainly true that this is a world with problems. But this is also an engaging world full of intriguing possibilities where, as we discover, survival need not be the limit of people’s ambitions. Plus, killer whales and rampaging polar bears. Blackfish City is layered, complex, well written and ultimately uplifting.  Recommended.

Mark Bilsborough

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