Tara Sim is a well-respected writer of YA SFF. (I have her Scavenge the Stars, of which I’ve heard nothing but good things, on my shelf for when I can steal time to read it). City of Dusk, the opening volume in a projected trilogy, is her first novel aimed at a primarily adult audience. You cannot imagine how much I wanted to love it, but alas! Not all books are for all readers, and while City of Dusk is a perfectly acceptable sort of epic fantasy, I’m too old and jaded to be charmed by its youthful cast of aristocratic protagonists, their divinely-sourced magic, and the threat of their world’s slow decay.
The city of Nexus is the capital of a powerful kingdom. The myth that its monarch uses to justify his rule is one of divinely-chosen holiness: its four major noble families (House Lastrider, House Cyr, House Mardova, and House Vakara) are born with specific kinds of magic on account of their literal descent from gods (respectively Nyx, whose aspect seems to be night and darkness; Phos, light and heat; Deia, elements; and Thana, death). Once Nexus was the centre of connections between worlds, too, linking the realms of Noctus (the dominion of Nyx), Solara (Phos) and Mortri (Thana) with that of Vitae (under the dominion of Deia), the realm in which Nexus lies. But the Sealing cut the realms off from each other, trapping Noctans and Solarans in Vitae, and preventing the souls of the dead from moving on to Mortri—resulting in, on occasion, more unfortunately reanimated corpses. And the realm of Vitae is slowly dying of the separation.
The younger generation of Lastriders—House heir Dante and his sister Taesia—have a plan to change things and possibly reopen the portals between the worlds. Dante means to use the forbidden magic of Conjuration to open the ways and build a better future not reliant on gods or kings. But Dante isn’t the only person using Conjuration, and things only become more complicated when Dante is arrested for the murder of a prelate.
The children of the Houses are friends, of a sort, despite the common belief that childless King Ferdinand will eventually choose between them when he gets around to naming an heir. The best chance to open the way between the worlds is on Godsnight, and it will require the heirs of the houses—Angelica Mardova, brittle and angry, who needs music to access her magic and feels this to be weakness; Nikolas Cyr, uncertain of his own worth, with an abusive father, a depressed mother, and a dead brother (and a relationship with Taesia that’s healthy for neither of them); Risha Vakara, a competent person, a daughter doing her best to be dutiful, a friend torn between loyalties; and Taesia, impulsive, good-hearted, (self-)destructive and unaccustomed to responsibility—to work together.
Chance, as they say, would be a fine thing.
And it turns out that a great deal of what they understand about the Sealing and their place in the world might not be… exactly accurate.
Sim’s characters are well-drawn, and City of Dusk is fast-paced, full of action, and normatively queer. (Are all the young protagonists disaster bisexuals, or do they just seem like the very fulfilment of the trope?) I have no hesitation in recommending it to anyone with less picky tastes than mine, or to someone who wants an epic fantasy that feels a lot like your college social club went on a revolutionary, god-smacking, rather murdery bender. (Maybe that’s just me.)
But these days what makes or breaks my enjoyment of a novel is its worldbuilding as much as anything else: atmosphere, a sense of layered depth and nuanced history, the complexity of communities expressed through language and conventions of naming, architecture and cuisine and the thousand intimate compromises of power and influence, memory and status and forgetting. I don’t find that here. No more do I find the youthful protagonists as interesting as I might find their forty-year-old selves: there’s a simplicity, a near-naivety about them that makes sense for sheltered college students and that makes a lot less sense for people expected to wield real power in a city—in a royal court—where politics have real stakes.
And, I confess, I’m very much out of charity with Bloodline Magic. It’s a common fantasy trope, inherited power. Blood and descent really does set some people apart—which is a fun idea to subvert but sets my hackles up when treated straight. Even aside for the implicit hereditary monarchy bullshit, what happens to the edge cases, when Power A marries Power B and the bloodline magic has to do its hereditary trick? Edge cases interest me. The children of power interest me less than the children who have to live in their shadow.
City of Dusk is a perfectly fine sort of book, but much as it grieves me to not engage with it with more enthusiasm, the themes and tropes that it’s interested in exploring aren’t the same as the things that compel me—or, at least, they compel me from very different angles. I hope it finds its readership.
City of Dusk is published by Orbit.
Liz Bourke used to be cranky. Now they’re just tired. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Their first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. It was a finalist for the 2018 Locus Awards and was nominated for a 2018 Hugo Award in Best Related Work. Find her at Patreon or Twitter.