Friday, 9 May 2014

‘The City’ – Stella Gemmell (Corgi)

Reading fiction should be fun, whatever the reason you’re doing it. If you’re not having fun then either you or the writer has gone seriously wrong somewhere down the line. There, I said it.
What reading fiction shouldn’t be like is having a tooth pulled out; a necessary evil that you have to endure for the promise of a positive outcome. You can tell that I’ve had a few teeth out in my time can’t you…? But yeah, reading any book should never be like having a tooth extracted, no matter how good it feels to finally reach the end of the process. You have probably guessed by now that my experience of ‘The City’ wasn’t an entirely positive one. Cast your eye over the blurb for a moment and then we’ll get into that experience a little more…

The City is ancient and vast and has been waging almost constant war for centuries. At its heart resides the emperor. Few have ever seen him. Those who have remember a man in his prime - and yet he should be very old. Some speculate that he is no longer human, others wonder if indeed he ever truly was. And a few have come to a desperate conclusion: that the only way to halt the emperor's unslakeable thirst for war is to end his unnaturally long life.
From the crumbling catacombs beneath the City where the poor struggle to stay alive to the blood-soaked fields of battle where so few heroes survive, these rebels emerge. Their hopes rest on one man. A man who was once the emperor's foremost general - a revered soldier who could lead an uprising and liberate a city, a man who was betrayed, imprisoned, tortured and is now believed to be dead...

On the face of it, ‘The City’ looks like it has everything it needs to be an engrossing fantasy novel. It’s clear that this is the target that it sets itself with a tale of intrigue and revenge that hovers around the edges of a wider war. Plenty of scope then for heroism and action, all set against the looming backdrop of a vast and ancient city. It all looks good and Gemmell clearly shows that she is control of her surroundings here, taking the reader through labyrinthine alleyways and sewers that almost literally ooze with atmosphere and intent. I’ve always been a sucker for a good fantasy cityscape and ‘The City’ certainly provides that with a backdrop that you can get lost in. That’s not all though, Gemmell populates the city with a cast of strong characters that are very easy to follow, even if you (and they) don’t know what is going on most of the time.

And that’s where ‘The City’ ultimately fell down for me because what we have here is a book where the reader, and the characters, don’t find out what’s going on until just over halfway through a seven hundred page book. That’s a lot of time to tag along on the promise that something good might happen but Gemmell had laid enough groundwork for me to assume that this would be the case. It was heavy going though with characters that are very readable but bogged down in a lot of unnecessary background history that you feel you have to wade through in order to get to the good stuff (hence the whole tooth pulling thing earlier).
What really got me though is that once you find out what is going on, you then have to wait almost half the rest of the book while things are built up for the finale; a finale that is over before you know it. While I could appreciate the irony of people ultimately fighting to preserve the status quo that they want to destroy, I wasn’t keen at all on having to wait almost seven hundred pages for something that was over so quickly. Imagine having that tooth pulled only to find out that you didn’t need it done after all… Yep, that’s how I was left feeling after reading ‘The City’.

‘The City’ has a lot of good things going for it but the execution of these ultimately fell short and left a lot to be desired (the pacing of the plot needs some serious work). It’s a real shame because the potential you can feel at the beginning is something else.

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