Map of Blue Book Balloon

12 December 2022

#Review - City of Last Chances by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Cover for book "City of Last Chances" by Adrian Tchaikovsky. This image is so complex I'm not sure I can do it justice. It's Dione mainly in shades or red, black and beige, a palette that reminded me of 1920s and 30s Soviet propaganda posters. Lines of soldiers. Waving red flags. Soaring towers and columns. Reddish, intricate machinery.
City of Last Chances
Adrian Tchaikovsky
Head of Zeus, 8 December 2022
Available as: HB, 512pp, audio, e
Source: Advance e-copy
ISBN(HB): 9781801108423

I'm grateful to Head of Zeus for sending me an e-copy of City of Last Chances via NetGalley to consider for review.

I think there is a theory that while science fiction is a literature focussed on change and development, fantasy is, rather, focussed on restoring what has been lost. "Space: the Final Frontier" vs "Return of the King", or something like that, with a good outcome seen either as transformative progress, or regression to The Golden Age.

In his new novel City of Last Chances, Adrian Tchaikovsky creates a whole world poised on the knife edge between these alternatives. He introduces us to Ilmar, also known as the City of Bad Decisions, a place with the reputation of being a last refuge for the unlucky, the stateless, the desperate. (I'm reminded of the nickname for Oxford, "City of Lost Causes"). There are rumours of a way out - a gateway out of misery - but the price of passage is high, leaving most of the malcontents, runaways and displaced populations stuck in Ilmar, their unique and disparate cultures decaying on that great compost heap of a town.

The Ilmari themselves have their own problems, though, now being ruled by the Palleseen, who, recently invaded, hanged the Old Duke, made Ilmar part of their Sway,  and set out imposing their ideas of perfection. (The Palleseen idea is a thing called 'The Perfecture', a glorious model society which all nations should want to be part of - those that won't sign up are clearly backwards, disruptive and sorely need to be brought to help).

The participants in this story are many and varied; among them are refugees who have settled in Ilmar (some after escaping from the Pels); factions among the Ilmari - most of whom are notionally part of a 'resistance', something Tchaikovsky shines a rather merciless spotlight on; and the Pels themselves. There are also hints of darker, older powers perhaps best alone. That gives a great many viewpoints including - to mention just a few - the last remaining believer in God; a man who's stepped out of another world where he was prepped for a merciless war, but who's lost his wife and is set only on finding here; an idealistic student radical; a foot soldier for the criminal gangs; a union organiser who's seen and suffered; and an cynical old academic who gives a nod to revolution in his classes while cutting deals with the Pels in the shadows.

That last is something of a theme here. The disparate rebel factions - students, aristocrats, thieves' syndicates and smugglers - have quite different views about how to free themselves from the Pels' yoke, and when a seemingly innocuous incident blows up into riot and uprising, nobody has a plan, or much of an idea how to proceed (apart from  raking off all they can in the chaos). That unfolding response, and countermoves by the occupiers, forms the texture of this story, together with desperate attempts, by a number of the characters, to track down the missing artefact that sparked everything off. That's important, because an avenger seems to be hunting down all those who may have secured the treasure. The decisions made here, by everyone, will determine who lives and who dies as the flame of revolution spreads...

City of Last Chances is a weighty and absorbing book, one I'd place far, far away from the run of fantasy or SF. Tchaikovsky clearly isn't buying into that simplistic binary that I mentioned at the start. The past of Ilmar isn't a desirable state to be brought back, but no future looks bright either. Better perhaps to remain on that knife edge, maintaining a complex relationship with the Pels. But that takes a lot of work and has a cost. Perhaps it's easier just to bring out the banners from the days gone by?

Nor will you find heroes or villains here. More or less everyone is - as in real life - out for themselves (I'd exclude from that idealistic student Lemya) or at least heavily conflicted. Take that union leader, for example, Father Orvechin. He's focussed on improvements in the conditions of his workers and, in the longer term, perhaps the overthrow of the Pels. But the factory owners who oppress his people are native aristos, not Pels, and the factories are kept turning by demons who are themselves enslaved, oppressed workers - workers that Orvechin is willing to see kept in their bonds, because they're not his people, though he knows that one day this will haunt him.

This whole sense of Ilmar as a nest of collaboration, compromise and negotiation with power, and that maybe that is just about the best things can be, is revisited and reworked throughout the book. The Pels themselves are split into different blocs who are willing to cuts deals when it suits them. The aristocrats ('Armigers') desire one future, the siblingries (unions and workers' guilds) another. At times they cooperate, at others they don't. The same goes for the other actors here. Picture a giant game of repeated Prisoners' Dilemma, played out in real time, with magic, lost deities and demons thrown in too, and you get some idea of the complexity and fascination of this book.

That may make the story sound academic or dry, but it's really not. It's passionate, urgent and angry. Tchaikovsky's central theme of compromise and collusion is shot through it, pulling against and reinforcing individual motivation is countless ways, different for every character.While there are so many of these that one can't really anoint any as the focus, they are all intricately, convincingly realised and the business they are about gloriously integrated with the setting and the wider history that is sketched. There was only one point at which a particular strand seemed to me to jar - when a mysterious assassin, otherwise not included in the story, played a part on behalf of unknown employers whom we never hear any more about. Apart from that very brief interlude though, this book was a marvellous symphony of clashing goals, missing information and immediate danger that had me hooked throughout. I would strongly recommend it.

For more information about City of Last Chances, see the publisher's website here.

No comments:

Post a Comment