Russell Letson Reviews The City of Last Chances by Adrian Tchaikovsky
The City of Last Chances, Adrian Tchaikovsky (Head of Zeus 978-1-80110-842-3, £20.00, 512 pp, hc) December 2022. Cover by Joe Wilson.
Adrian Tchaikovsky clearly understands genre games quite thoroughly, since he has been working both sides and several alleyways of the great science fiction/fantasy divide in more than three dozen previous titles. For example, Elder Race (2021) built a pseudo-medieval heroic fantasy world on an armature of science-fictional enabling devices, so that anything apparently magical was actually material technology – and yet the tale retained the flavor of fantasy (however interrogated). Now, in The City of Last Chances, he demonstrates another way of navigating that permeable genre borderland in its portrait of the city of Ilmar, at whose outskirts lies the remnant of a forest that is a gateway to other realities. This is, technically, a fantasy universe (or multiverse) populated by gods, demons, and magical practitioners of all kinds, both local and imported. But all those varied magics are lawful enough to permit exploitation, monetization, bureaucratization, and industrialization (including extracting and recycling and repurposing), so that magic blends seamlessly into technology, and everything from firearms to button factories can be powered or boosted by some kind of magic.
Perhaps more important for story purposes is that Ilmar is also a city under occupation, its institutions and culture being slowly reshaped by the relentless, rigorous, and notionally rational conquerors from Pallesand, whose various department names all contain the telling descriptors ‘‘School’’ and ‘‘Correct’’ and whose failing grades are awarded in the Donjon or on the scaffold. Ilmar itself has a history out of any number of medieval fantasy worlds of aristocrats, mages, soldiers, and monsters. But those days are long gone, and its current reality is more Dickensian: a decayed squirearchy, an extensive criminal class, factories run on exploitation of human and demon labor, whorehouses and drinking-dens, all under the thumb of the occupying ideologues of the conquering Palleseens.
There are more than a dozen viewpoint or significant characters – all occupying their own chapters, adding some detail to the picture. I suppose every reader will fasten on a different set of characters to root for, though I was immediately taken by the opening chapter’s picture of Yasnic, the last priest of a much-diminished and whiny god, as they wake and greet the day:
‘‘It’s cold,’’ God said. ‘‘It’s so cold.’’ The divine presence was curled up on his shelf like an emaciated cat, and about the same size. He had shrunk since the night before…. Sometimes Yasnic could do with a little less God in his life.
Yasnic’s life is constrained not only by poverty but by a detailed and inflexible set of divine commandments and his innate meekness. This makes him the polar opposite of Vulture gang enforcer Ruslav, who bullies his way through life, given pause only by his terrifying bosses (the dire Bitter Sisters and their voracious pet monster) and by his participation in the Pursuit, the gang culture’s strange cross between courtly love and stalking. Nevertheless, Ruslav and Yasnic’s paths through the story keep intersecting, taking them to quite different waypoints and destinations.
The rest of the extensive cast is just as eccentric and compelling: bullying, corrupt, or incompetent occupiers; dodgy innkeepers; idealistic student would-be revolutionaries; a shady pawnbroker/antiquities dealer; an enigmatic and surprisingly adept tavern dogsbody; and numerous others – exiles, refugees, outcasts, outlaws, academics, misfits, square pegs, masqueraders, sneak thieves, assassins, gang bosses, labor organizers, bureaucrats petty and senior, the involuntarily transformed or displaced, the ghost-possessed. Fortunately the book’s front matter includes a Dramatis Personae and lists of the Factions of the city and its occupiers, as well as a nice map, should the reader become disoriented as the Factions and others tear around the city, pursuing or pursued. Then there are the authorial-voice chapter epigraphs, offering exposition or background or comments, plus occasional overview or ‘‘mosaic’’ chapters that cut across the twisting, intersecting plotlines.
Two things hold this sprawl of viewpoints and story lines together: the hunt for its McGuffin, a magical token of considerable power that allows safe passage between worlds; and the buildup to a spasm of unrest and uprising, as the McGuffin-hunt knocks any number of delicately balanced (and generally corrupt) arrangements askew. Add to that the setting of a conquered city whose occupying bureaucracy adheres to a narrow, totalizing, brutal, and often crooked sociopolitical ideology there is something of the flavor of the noir-and-espionage novels of Alan Furst and Phillip Kerr, portraits of Europe under the Nazis, of official corruption, desperate resistance, and dire consequences.
But this is also a secondary-world fantasy, built on a metaphysical system that runs on magic and supernatural entities and forces, and on that end I detect echoes of Michael Swanwick, Ann Leckie, Greg Bear, and Walter Jon Williams, reaching back to Fritz Leiber and Jack Vance in the motifs and magical machineries. And, across another border, there is Dickens in the city’s general poverty and squalor and in the demon-powered factories of the Hammer District, where creatures sold into bondage by the demonic King Below turn the wheels that make the buttons for the uniforms of the Pallaseen School of Correct Conduct.
There is a great deal going on in Ilmar, too much story to do more than hint at here, but it’s an intriguing tangle, dense, dark, ingenious, ironic, complex, often funny, and always smart.
Russell Letson, Contributing Editor, is a not-quite-retired freelance writer living in St. Cloud MN. He has been loitering around the SF world since childhood and been writing about it since his long-ago grad school days. In between, he published a good bit of business-technology and music journalism. He is still working on a book about Hawaiian slack key guitar.
This review and more like it in the February 2023 issue of Locus.
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