The inside cover blurb of my Hogarth hardback edition describes this novel as "Cinematic, bawdy, rollicking, hilarious, and utterly unforgettable." Now I've finished it, I can suggest that it's a very fair quote, but not in any of the ways I expected going in.
The first thing I should point out is that Chandler Klang Smith can write. I'm talking here not about plot and characters and the other typical elements of the big picture that we tend to focus on, but the effortless way she slings words together. I thoroughly enjoyed this as a writer, appreciating her use of adjectives, which she hurls out like wild confetti; the way she sets scenes, with a similar surrealty to Tom Waits; and her ability to describe things by using pithy judgement calls.
Here's a great example of all three of those talents in one paragraph that paints a particularly vivid picture:
It's as though she's wandered backstage in a vaudeville house at the end of the world. This saloon attracts a mature clientele compared to the streets outside. Most of the patrons appear to have reached their early twenties, but the years have come at some apparent cost. At one table, a bored ingenue clad in feathers looks on as her companion plays five-finger filet with a straight razor. At the next, a shirtless ogre with an eye patch breathes louder than seems strictly necessary. Two broad-shouldered young women, sporting chain mail and chonmages, stand like statues in the back, flanking a curtained alcove beyond whence exotic music drifts. Other surly characters mill about, personifications of all the major sins and vices. Swanny glances to Duluth for reassurancehe offers nonethen affects nonchalance as she saunters to the bar.
However, the fact that I'm a huge fan of the author's use of language is the primary reason why I made it through this book. It was never a hardship for me, purely for linguistic reasons. When it came to the more traditional plot and characters, then we're in completely different territory.
This novel is broken up into three sections. Part I covers the first half of the book and introduces the world and the characters. I delighted in the former and absolutely loathed the latter. Part II is most of the rest of the book and shifts those characters into completely different situations, at which point I started to find them interesting. I still loathed them all but, a long way out of their element, I didn't loathe reading about them. Part III comprises the final seventy-five pages or so and attempts to bring a plot into proceedings.
The setup is incredibly simple. We're in a very old world, whose years have six digits, and we're focused on Empire City, a name that suggests that it's at least vaguely inspired by New York. It used to be a rich and vibrant place but, fifty or so years ago, a couple of dragons mysteriously emerged from the sea and began to set fire to it. They haven't stopped, literally, because they never set foot on land and never sleep. And, eventually, the response to their threat was to leave, the tipping point being when the Empire City fire department mutinied and ran.
Why did this happen? I still can't tell you, Part III notwithstanding. When I closed the last page, I may understand a little of the how (but not much); I certainly don't understand the who or the why or pretty much any aspect of the crucial back story that we aren't really given.
Only one of the characters really tries to seek out the answers to even one of the questions above and that's Abby, who we tend to see as the hanger-on in this big picture, albeit as the least dislikeable character of the whole lot. She's a strange soul, who's been living alone on a garbage dump island for as long as she can remember. We ought to see her as a victim, because the first person she meets treats her as nothing more than a living blow-up doll; there to be used for his pleasure whenever he wants, but we find that we don't care enough to do so. He calls her "wench", without any irony.
That's Duncan Humphrey Ripple V, an insufferable and puerile rich kid who is also a reality TV star on top of all his many other character defects, which are so numerous I lost count after a couple of pages. Smith does a fantastic job of fleshing out his backgroundhis parents, his home, his bedroom, his hobbies, his showand not one single element is endearing. Naturally, it's Dunky (ugh) who gets to be our lead character.
The other primary character is the insufferable but fortunately not puerile young lady who's betrothed to him. She's Baroness Swan Lenore Dahlberg, usually known as Swanny (ugh) and, while in any other book, she'd probably be my least favourite character, she is at least light years ahead of Dunky, however many inappropriate teeth her body generates.
I should add that the best thing that happens to these two characters is that they split up pretty quickly. I could say that, apart, they come into their own, but that's not really true. They merely each find themselves in a new world utterly unlike any they've ever known and they find a way to not only survive but to finally find a way to be interesting to us. Both of them, freed of their typical environments, find substance, maybe worth, and are suddenly readable, even if I loathed them still.
Dunky is pressed into service by Leather Lungs, the one firefighter left in Empire City, with the goal of putting out as many dragonfires as they can, which he finds that he both enjoys and is good at. Sure, he mostly sees it as a sort of live action videogame, but he does grow considerably; so, by the end of the book, I was just a little less eager to murder him in cold blood.
Swanny is kidnapped by Eisenhower Sharkey, the drug dealing kingpin of a slum known as Torchtown. He's a thoroughly despicable character, which is an odd thing to say when I liked him far more than any of the leads. Surely the banter between Swanny and Sharkey is the funniest and pithiest I have had the privilege to read in a long time. He's a veteran of the streets, while she's probably never seen one, but they connect magnificently and Smith's talent for dialogue is something to write home about.
So, what do we have here? Five-star worldbuilding, but a one-star plot. One-star leads, but drawn in a five-star way, and five-star supporting characters. Five-star use of language, with neat references where we least expect, but one star-slang (my goodness, it's appropriate, but I hated every word of it). Oh, and not enough page numbers. I can't blame the author for layout but that bugged me.
Let's go back to that inside cover description: "Cinematic, bawdy, rollicking, hilarious, and utterly unforgettable." It's absolutely cinematic, because its aching to be visual; I could see these places vividly. It's absolutely bawdy, in an inappropriate fashion. It's absolutely rollicking, though that's not quite the positive I expected. It's often absolutely hilarious, because Smith does snark very well indeed, especially in cross-class dialogue. And, it's certainly unforgettable. I kind of want to forget half of this immediately but let the rest linger teasingly forever. Sadly, I'll remember all of it. ~~ Hal C F Astell