What I’m reading: Amanda Downum – The Drowning City

More re-posting from LibraryThing; this time around a fantasy debut novel that I enjoyed rather a lot and that has me looking forward to the announced sequels.

Amanda Downum: The Drowning City

https://i2.wp.com/www.hachettebookgroup.com/_images/ISBNCovers/Covers_Large/9780316069045_154X233.jpgI’m too jaded and cynical to pay much regard to blurbs anymore; but when I visit an author’s website and find her just-published first novel praised by no less than three of my current favourite Fantasy authors (Elizabeth Bear, Sarah Monette and Jacqueline Carey, to be precise) then I’m still naive enough that it does get my attention.

And fortunately so, in this case, for I liked The Drowning City a lot. Every fantasy novel that swerves from the still mostly standard European, pseudo-medieval setting does get bonus points from me, and all the more if it is as vividly evoked as Symir, the drowned city of the novel’s title – a large and bustling port town in the Asian-influenced country of Sivahra, built close to a volcano and surrounded by swamp and jungle. Sivahra is occupied by the noticeably Arabian-themed Empire, whichin turn is the reason is the reason why the novel’s main protagonist, necromancer Isyllt Iskandur, is sent to Symir as a spy from the northern realm of Selafia, to help foment rebellion against the Empire.

Confused yet? There is a lot of intrigue and politicking going on in this novel, and Amanda Downum obviously spend some time and effort to imagine a richly detailed world. She rigorously avoids infodumps, though, and slips all the information necessary to understand what is going on into the multiple POV narratives. This keeps the novel at a brisk pace and the reader from getting bored, it also means that it is easy to miss something important if one lets one’s attention flag. Which I personally tend to consider a good thing, but your mileage may vary. The plot construction is a bit creaky at times, some things hinge rather too much on chance encounters for my taste, and there is at least one character (an agent of the Empire working against the Emperor) who doesn’t seem to fulfill any function I could discern.

But then, this is a first novel, and some awkwardness is to be expected. On the plus side are the character, of which there are quite a few for what counts as a comparative slim novel these days – all the POV characters are well developed, and there is always a sense of people doing what they do because they believe is the right thing to do, and not because the plot needs a villain.

And the setting those characters move in is just as well-developed, imaginative and fascinating to read about, whether it’s the tribal culture of the Sivahran natives, the various intrigues playing out in Symir to finally come to an explosive and gruesome climax, or the necromantic magic Isyllt wields – it all weaves together to a rich and varied tapestry that left me curious for more tales from this world.

Where the novel really shines, though, is its language. I have not read a fantasy novel that was this well written in quite some time, and Amanda Downum’s ability to evoke the brooding fetid atmosphere of the drowning city, to bring a character to life or to vividly render an action scene with just a few brushstrokes is impressive to say the least. There are no lengthy descriptions in this novel, but Amanda Downum achieves with just a few well-selected words, a handful of well-placed metaphors to make her world with its colours, sounds and smells, her characters with their emotions and hurts come more vividly alive than any verbose description going on across the pages.

While it stands perfectly well on its own, The Drowning City is the first novel in a planned trilogy called The Necromancer Chronicles,  and I for one can’t wait to read the second installment which will be called The Bone Palace and is scheduled for release in 2010.

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