by Stella Gemmell
Review by Jon Guenther
Ace Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780425264188
Date: 04 June 2013 List Price $26.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK
It's always a pleasure to discover new authors, particularly if they have a previous reputation but remain woefully underrated. Such seems to be the case with Stella Gemmell and her debut solo novel, The City. This is the story of a once thriving, fantasy metropolis that has become a dangerous and desolate landscape torn asunder by war, neglect, and a once great emperor gone totally mad.
While I found this a strikingly dark tale, the many mature and robust characters woven throughout the story made it lighter fare in the big picture. For example, those familiar with Steven Erickson's Malazan Book of the Fallen series would probably find this not nearly as dark in contrast. The heart of the story includes a great female warrior named Indaro and her leader (and subsequent love interest), Fell Aron Lee. Other rich characters fill this novel, including Emly and Elija--child siblings who are separated and trying to make their way to safety through the perilous times and places surrounding the City--each accompanied by older mentors and/or protectors as they embark on a series of quest-like misadventures.
Ms. Gemmell handles these characters with a deft hand, keeping them fresh and interesting and full of constant surprises. To my surprise, I did not get much sense, if any, of the magic elements within this novel. It seemed more grounded to me, and the magic way more subtle, than in other offerings of a similar vein in this genre. This also made it much more difficult to assess whether or not the book would appeal to the majority of dark epic-fantasy fans. However, the differences in this book as compared to so many others were what made it exciting and refreshing.
On occasion, the novel did slow down too much and suffered from a bit of bloat. That's not unusual in epic fantasies, though. I can assert that the comparisons readers might see to this book and the works of George R.R. Martin are not well founded. In fact, I see no similarities in voice or style--they are wholly different works with The City taking an approach I found more favorable to my own, somewhat eclectic reading tastes. The book did contain a very disproportionate amount of battle scenes to the detriment of a more robust plot, in my opinion. Nonetheless, I found Ms. Gemmell's pace an excellent touch to those scenes and so in the end she kept me reading.
In summary, those afraid of change to their comfort zones in genre need not apply. The City is both an entertaining and highly unusual book. Frankly, I quite enjoyed that it wasn't same-old, same-old. Moreover, the author brings the fates and story lines together in an unusually clever way, which is the most I will say so as not to spoil it for readers. Overall, I applaud this debut solo and I believe those of you looking for a fresh change to dark epic fantasy will likely embrace the work as a whole. Plain and simple: a job well done and a memorable story!