City of Last Chances
(2022) Adrian Tchaikovsky, Ad Astra – Head of Zeus, £20, hrdbk, ix + 499, ISBN 978-1-801-10842-3
Ilmar, the city of lost chances, of abandoned gods, of immigrants and demons, factory workers and students, of old aristocratic families and their dancing ghosts. Ilmar, a place of magic and superstition, built over an ancient forest, whose remnant holds a portal to other worlds. Ilmar, under occupation by the Palleseen, with their monochromatic uniforms and rigid adherence to strict rules of conduct and language. It is this clash of cultures that provides the setting for Tchaikovsky’s tale of a stolen magical ward, intended to protect a Palleseen ‘Sage-Archivist’ on his journey through the portal, and the disastrous attempts to retrieve it.
The spiralling chaos that these generate drags in a loose band of misfits, including Lemya, a student who shares a boarding house with Yasnic, priest and sole worshipper of a diminished god of healing, Ruslav, a thug who works for a criminal gang run by the Bitter Sisters and Blackmane, an immigrant pawnbroker who has dealings in artefacts with Ostravar, a ‘Maestro’ of the Gownhall and Lemya’s Professor. If these characters edge a little too close to caricature – Lemya is naive and idealistic, Ruslav turns out to have a heart of … something gold-adjacent and so on – then the Palleseen overlords are definitely one-dimensional stand-ins for some 1984-ish monolithic and overweening – not to mention, brutal – bureaucracy.
Sitting in stark contrast to these stereotypes is Ilmar itself, with its back alleys and dead ends, its open squares and bridges, its slums and ‘Hammer District’, wherein lie the factories run by the ‘Siblingries’ (workers’ unions) but owned by the aristocratic families up on Armigine Hill, well away from The Reproach, where the ghosts of their ancestors still prance and gibber. Tchaikovsky skilfully immerses the reader into this rich and diverse world, where magic and machinery intertwine, and mysterious figures with barely glimpsed back-stories step onto, and then off, centre stage. And if the plot, such as it is, does not lead to the ending that many might anticipate, with so much of this world left unexplained, despite all the descriptive flourishes, and if some of the central cast don’t make it out in one piece, there is still great satisfaction to be had in seeing the worst get their come-uppance while the best achieve some measure of peace.
As might be surmised, as compelling as it is, this is not your standard fantasy story, with some mighty hero on a noble quest. Neither is it a tale of storming the barricades and throwing off the shackles of the oppressor. At its heart, City of Last Chances is about the choices people make, under difficult and dangerous circumstances, with the often limited resources available to them. And of course, it is about the impact of those choices on themselves, on others and ultimately, on the city itself, to which, we can only hope, the author will one day return.
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