21 December 2016

Review - The White City

Image from www.simonmorden.com
The White City
Simon Morden
Gollancz, 27 October 2016
PB, 321pp

Source: bought from my local bookshop

This is the sequel to Down Station, published earlier this year which I reviewed here. Before I go on to review The White City I'd just like to say how totally gorgeous the design of both books is - I can't see a designer credited but I think that www.blacksheep-uk.com have done an amazing job with these.

The book follows swiftly on from the end of Down Station. The motley group of London Underground workers who fled a burning city through a mysterious portal have escaped sadistic geomancer Bell and taken off with a chest of treasure - maps of Down, the country, or world, they ended up in.

They have also taken off with the treacherous Crows, which is already becoming a problem, but they need him to guide them to the White City which seems to be the only place in Down they might find out what's going on. The team - led by Dalip, the young Sikh engineer, and Mary, who has developed the ability to transform into a bird - are still in danger from the start.

I found this book a sheer joy to read. At one level it's an adventure quest from start to finish, filled with practical challenges (how to sail a boat, where to find food, how to deal with pirates). At another though it presents moral challenges: should you steal a boat? When is it right to side with pirates? Above all, perhaps, can you (should you) kill? - or, more bluntly, when may you - kill? Many of these dilemmas and questions are seen from the viewpoint of Dalip in the light both of his Sikh beliefs and his family's experiences. What would his grandfather, who fought in the War, have been willing to do? Should Dalit be willing to do the same?

At other times the viewpoint is Mary's - as a streetwise London kid her approach is initially more cynical and it's influenced by her different circumstances in Down. So we get, in effect, a commentary and debate on what is right even in a portal fantasy parallel world. That is something which I hadn't realised I'd been missing: so often the implicit attitude seems to be, oooh, a world full of goodies where I can let rip and do whatever I get away with!

Not that the book is preachy or moralistic - this is a hard world, where the geomancers enslave new arrivals. And as we see in this sequel, there may be worse things out there even than them. As Morden gives us a bit more information about the origin of Down and how it all works, we also see that the geomancers are part of the pattern, not as free as they think, with others pulling their strings.

It's deftly plotted, my only slight reservation being that in places the details of the previous book are assumed. You really don't want to start with this one, go and read Down Station first (and ideally read them one after another if you can).

Finally: Dalip thinks he's worked out the pattern of Down with the "portals" and intersecting "lines" Perhaps he has, but... that reminds me of something. Down Street is a closed LU station. So is White City, sort of (it's moved a few times). So if the next book turns out to be called Mark Lane, British Museum or Aldwych... well.

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