The Drowning City by Amanda Downum
The Necromancer Chronicles, Book One
Published by Orbit UK, September 2009.
353 pages plus extras
Review by Mark Yon
This debut novel has flaws, but shows a writer with potential. It is a world of Eastern promise, with hints reminiscent of Imperial India and the Raj intermixed with oriental China. There is also espionage, ghosts of ancestors governing the living, necromancy and derring-do.
Isyllt Iskaldur of Erisin is a spy in the employ of the Selafai. Upon being given the responsibility of discovering and supporting the terrorists determined to undermine the Assari Empire, she travels to Symir, the drowning city of the title, with her sayifarim (bodyguards) Adam and Xinai. There she becomes embroiled in politics as well as being the murder suspect of her friend and mentor Vasilios Medeion.
This may sound a little familiar but usually a reader hopes that a tale will develop enough of its own identity in order to make it memorable. Here the key differences of the novel are the use of oriental-style ghosts in a South American rainforest-type setting and its magic system. One of these worked for me, the other less so. Here, ghosts of your ancestors can determine your lifestyle, by both being a force for change and a means of possession if things get too tricky. Less successful is the world’s means of magic – basically this involves storing ghosts in what basically amounts to magic crystals is a little too Mario-land for my liking, though the author makes a reasonable job with what could have been a millstone.
The main difficulty for me here was in the characterisation. There was a lot I wanted to like, particularly Isyllt, as a strong heroine with a dominant position throughout the novel. In the same way, I thought that the fact that Isyllt’s friend and colleague Xinai finds the bonds of family too strong to ignore and sides with the rebels in terrorist bombings was a nice idea. Through a Fantasy setting, I appreciated that issues of terrorism and freedom fighters could be used to show why such a lifestyle can become an engaging one, as perhaps in real countries today.
With such concepts I was hoping that the tale would make me care about what happens more in the book. It must be said that the characters do evolve through the book, but strangely in the end I felt that I was a little underwhelmed by them all. I liked them, but eventually was unsure as to whether I had engaged with them enough to want to know them.
The tale is fairly fast moving, from one set piece to another, and this tends to cover up the fact that there is actually little depth here. I rather expected more espionage and political shenanigans than I actually got, and of the actual world around Symir there is, in the end, little to be actually seen here. By the denouement, things are a little overwrought, with what initially seemed to be a key plot-stone turning out to be nothing more than a MacGuffin around which the other events unfurl. The ending is rather apocalyptic and possibly a little overdone, with some plotlines being conveniently held over to the next book.
Nevertheless, despite my grumbles, there is much to enjoy here. I suspect many will like this more than I did. The Drowning City is a capably written and competent tale from a debut writer. Its sequel, The Bone Palace, will be published some time next year.
Mark Yon, September 2009.