City of Dreams and Nightmare, Ian Whates
City of Dreams and Nightmare, Ian Whates
Angry Robot, 427pp, £7.99 pbk
On the back cover of Ian Whates’ debut novel, City of Dreams and Nightmare, it says “FILE UNDER FANTASY”, but I’m not convinced. City of Dreams and Nightmare is certainly genre fiction, but its best fit would be science fiction. Yes, there are bits of steampunk in there, and the whole has something of the feel of a fantasy. But too much of the book’s furniture is out of science fiction’s store for Angry Robot’s advice to ring true.
Which is not to say that readers of fantasy won’t enjoy it.
Tom is a “street-nick”, a member of a teenage street gang formed from orphans and abandoned kids. Tom has been dared to visit the highest levels of the city, ostensibly to steal a “demon’s egg”. In Thaiburley, the “City of a Hundred Rows”, social classes have been made physical – the higher the Row, the higher the social standing. Tom and the other street-nicks live in the City Below, the lowest part of Thaiburley. The “demons” live on the city’s roof with the Masters.
Unfortunately, while on one of the highest Rows, Tom witnesses Senior Arkademic Magnus knife a colleague to death. He’s discovered by the murderer, but manages to escape and return to the City Below. Magnus, desperate to hide evidence of his crime, tasks Kite Guard Tylus with apprehending the street-nick, but also sends his manservant/assassin Dewar to secretly aid the Kite Guard. However, Tom hasn’t made it back to his street-gang. After meeting a helpful Jeradine, a frog-like alien race, Tom is escorted across the City Below, and through rival gang territory, by Kat, a young female independent fighter.
Whates further fattens his novel with hints of a greater plot which increasingly impacts on the adventures of Tylus and Tom. Someone called the Maker has been subverting the street-nicks, using bio-mechanical creatures which inject parasitic worms. This has set the gangs battling each other, further complicating Tom’s attempt to return home. There’s also the dog master, who is like the Maker, but uses only dogs. And there’s a creature hiding in an old pumping station on the river whose origin and purpose will no doubt be explained in later books…
Tom is no Artful Dodger, he’s probably too innocent, too good, to really convince as a street-nick. He also has magic powers, which no one else seems to possess. It’s only at the end of the novel that the origin of these powers is explained – although the reason for Tom’s placement at the centre of the plot is left for a later book.
Perhaps the best word to describe City of Dreams and Nightmare is “romp”. It romps along. Occasionally, it lollops. But like the dog master’s creations, it often has the feel of an affectionate family pet onto which bits have been bolted. You have the naif Tom, at the centre of a plot he doesn’t understand; and Tylus, the “fish out of water”, who only needed a change of scene and a crisis to prove himself. There’s the evil Dewar, a sociopathic assassin whose objectives briefly align with those of the rest of the cast. And Kat, the nubile street fighter, who’s plainly intended for greater things…
The city of Thaiburley may be original, but in places the story and cast feel a little worn. City of Dreams and Nightmare is not without its flaws. I found it difficult to actually picture Thaiburley and its environs. The city seems to have been founded on the top of a mountain, and subsequently extended out from it and deep wthin it. But it never seemed entirely clear. There are also a couple of sections which should have been edited out – it’s all very well having teenage female characters, but it’s less good having them lusted after by grown men or behaving coquettishly in response.
Having said all that, the book is a fast, enjoyable read. It also wraps up nicely, closing off enough of the novel’s plot to leave you satisfied, but keeping enough open to lead into the next book in the series. That will be City of Hope and Despair, due at the end of the year.
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