Reviewsday Tuesday – The Drowning City

(it honestly took me half an hour to decide whether or not to use a hashtag for ‘Reviewsday Tuesday’)

Normally I don’t jump on the bandwagon with other people’s ideas to generate an arbitrary format for producing content on the Internet, like the Harlem Shake, x does my makeup or a fifty facts post, but today I’m making an exception; Hank Green, of vlogbrothers fame, has suggested a new ‘Internet thing’, in which people review books on Tuesdays under that nicely rhyming title. And while most Internet fads place the emphasis on strict adherence to a format, with the enjoyment coming from minor and superficial variations within it, the flexibility of written prose, and the, near-literal, infinity of books on Earth, means that Reviewsday Tuesdays appeal to me: I get to tell you about books I enjoy, without being an idea-stealing prick in the process.

And so, I give you my spoiler-free (but not necessary expletive-free) review of Amanda Downum’s The Drowning City.

The premise of the novel is initially quite simple, with our three protagonists Isyllt, Adam and Xinai, who are on a mission to encourage local nationalist groups in the province of Sivahra to overthrow their corrupt and culturally-repressive rulers, the Assari Empire. This plot is immediately made more complex by the fact that Isyllt is sent from a rival nation, from her northern home of Selafai, to complete this task, and her accomplices are mercenaries, placing us immediately in a world of questionable loyalty and morality, in which our protagonists are working for a fundamentally self-interested goal.

This questionable alliances are taken further, with a marriage breaking up as one partner joins the Ki Dai, an Selafai extremist group, suggesting that ethnic and cultural identity are more powerful than personal marriage bonds, which prioritises the interests of the collective over that of the individual. This is also seen in the natural disaster towards the end of the text, whose widespread destruction shows the insignificance of political and communal alliances and ties; in the end, the whole city can drown.

And these ideas are reinforced by the eerily familiar setting of the text; the naming conventions and monsoon rainforest lanscape of Sivahra are clearly ‘South Asian-inspired’, as Downum said in an interview, but the novel’s use of fantasy elements, such as magic, and the literally pro-Armageddon stance of groups like the Ki Dai means the world of the novel functions as an exaggeration of our own society; perhaps weren’t not about to slaughter each other in the name of an army of ghost ancestors here in London, but the issues of cultural, political and individual identity, and their inevitable conflicts, is relevant to all of us on Earth today.

Having said that these identities come into conflict, the weakest one of these in the text is that of the individual, and this is an issue with the book; despite the awe around Isyllt for her necromancy, she only performs one exorcism (just) and spends most of the novel hanging out with Asheris, a mysterious Assari official, rather than actually causing revolution; she arranges for a shipment of weapons to be delivered to the island, but that happens fairly early on, and that’s about it.

Furthermore, I felt detached from the characters at times: Adam and Xinai split from each other, despite being married, and their detachment happens so early in the text that I don’t feel bad for either party; they have a few intimate scenes, which shows how their split removes the only hint of basic sexual pleasure from the novel, but there aren’t any flashbacks to their courting, or daring tales of these, supposed, mercenaries, saving each other’s lives against the odds. Obviously, such tools are a little cliched, but its the job of the writer to use the tools that we all know to create responses, and I don’t think this was done effectively.

Kiril, for instance, was insanely annoying; filling the ‘old master’ role, you’d expect him to be at the forefront of Isyllt’s thoughts, but she talks with him once, talks about him once, and is often distracted by thinking of him, which leaves the reader a little confused because she’s often judging her actions against a set of values we’ve never been introduced to.

This leads to my main issue with the book, that it feels underdeveloped; it reads more like a sequel, or bridge between two established novels, rather than a trilogy-opener. For instance, the idea of not explaining the text’s magical elements makes sense, as this helps the reader to understand the character’s feelings of surprise as Isyllt’s abilities, but I found that groups like the Ki Dai didn’t really change as the text progressed, with their final, violent, solution to Imperial occupation not being that surprising, given their aggressive mentality.

But I feel these issues can be dealt with in the next two novels, which I’ve not read but are out; underdevelopment of Kiril will be solved if he actually features in the next bloody book, and the consequences of the destruction at the novel’s end will probably lead to more political divides and discussions between the two powers, that was hinted at with Isyllt’s introduction as serving Selafai, but never really developed in Sivahra domestic politics.

I loved the book overall, and it is perhaps a mark of the quality of Downum’s world that I am looking forward to the sequels not to meticulously comb through to see how Isyllt develops, but because I have a need to find out what happens to all of the characters and societies from The Drowning City, especially Zhirin, whose excellently ambiguous conclusion makes Battlestar Galactica’s Starbuck ending seem obvious.

I’d encourage all of you to participate in this fest of online book-sharing, even if, like me, you’ve not filled the condition of posting a picture of your book, or your involvement is limited to commenting the name of a book – new ideas of what to read are always welcome.


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