The City (only ever referred as such by the characters) has stood for time immemorial. At its center is Araeon, the immortal Emperor, who has been directing the centuries-long war against all who would attempt to breach its walls. The City is an ancient structure which rises to great heights and delves to great depths. It is at these depths that Stella Gemmell begins the journey for the reader, focusing on brother and sister Emly and Elija as a great flood separates them during a journey through the sewers. Along their separate journeys, the world inside the epic swath of the City is revealed through the eyes and point of view of soldiers and those caught in many struggles of power throughout the city.
The City marks the solo debut for Stella Gemmell, who helped her late husband finish a re-imagining of the Battle of Troy. Add to that, Stella is/was a journalist so it should be little surprise that she’s got the writing chops, so to speak. Gemmell introduces the world of The City to the reader with some great passages and character interactions. Most importantly, Gemmell immerses the reader in the story, building a fully believable world filled with filth and grime at its bottom, dirt and grit at the ground level and loftiness and power at its apex. In this respect, I felt a similarity to the novels of Guy Gavriel Kay.
Gemmell paints a wide canvas with her characters, telling the story of The City from multiple points of view. We start with brother and sister Elija and Emly. As the siblings are separated, Emly is taken under the proverbial wing of Bartellus, a disgraced soldier (formerly known as Shuskara) who eventually becomes the young girl’s adoptive father. Elija is taken in by the enemies of the City and the emperor, the Blues. As the novel focuses on military conflict and drama, we learn about Fell Aaron Lee, a young soldier fighting for the Emperor. Gemmell also introduces a cadre of women soldiers, primarily through the eyes of young Indaro, a woman conflicted by her past and shaky familial relationship.
The Emperor himself, as the primary antagonist, is not the typical evil overlord. He’s something much more than human, for he is nearly omniscient. Those people fighting the war against the Blues at the Emperor’s command are becoming weary, and some have felt how drastically the whims of the Emperor affect their family while others have seen friends’ lives extinguished because the Emperor deemed it so. As a result, many of the people who live in the City feel the only way to bring a halt to the incessant conflict is to put an end to the life of the Emperor. Unfortunately, ending the life of a person whose nickname is the Immortal is a difficult challenge. I found the revelation of the emperor’s nature, both the fact of it and how it was revealed, to be one of the stronger and more unique elements of the novel.
I was immediately drawn into the characters of Emly and Elija, and later Bartellus, so while I understand Gemmell’s reasoning, was a bit disappointed when the story moved away from them. Though Indaro was a fairly strong character, the chapters focusing on her didn’t hold as much narrative power for me. When the story was brought back to Emly and Bartellus, Gemmell’s voice felt stronger and more assured. There’s a mystery surrounding the true identity of Bartellus, as well as Fell Aaron Lee. Both men knew each other prior to the start of the novel, the flashbacks to their past felt as urgent and held as much energy as did the more “present” scenes of the novel.
The novel began in the sewers with two young children who were basically nobodies. The ascent of the story from the sewers to the apex of the City was both figurative and literal. Because of that, as Gemmell leads the reader from the depths of the sewer to the heights of the City’s spires, the journey felt all the more resonant. The conclusion of the novel was breakneck and quite enthralling, almost making up for some of the slower middle sections of the novel. What’s more rewarding was how well Gemmell brought the plot threads and characters, which seemed so far flung in the middle portions of the novel, back together at the end of the novel.
The City is a sweeping novel of great power. Gemmell’s novel is filled with eloquent, textured prose highlighting powerful emotions and beings of great power. Stella Gemmell is a writer with an engaging voice of her own and although The City is very much a standalone novel, the story is planted in ground fertile enough that stories set either in the past or future of the novel would bear fruit.
Read an excerpt right here on Tor.com.
The City is published by Ace Books. It comes out June 4.