The Drowning City is Amanda Downum’s debut novel and was just released on August 25. It is the first book in The Necromancer Chronicles series, and the next two books are scheduled to be published approximately a year apart (The Bone Palace in 2010 and Kingdoms of Dust in 2011). Ever since I saw the cover quote from one of my favorite authors, Elizabeth Bear, I’ve been dying to read it – and the actual cover plus the description about necromancy and spying didn’t hurt either. Unfortunately, it failed to connect with me even though there are a lot of positive aspects about it.
Necromancer Isyllt Iskaldur arrives in Symir with a mission – to start a revolution before the Empire decides to invade her own country. Her master sent her, along with a bodyguard Adam and his partner Xinai who is originally from Symir, to find one of the native groups dedicated to overthrowing the emperor. As a practitioner of magic, Isyllt makes contact with the local mages and pretends to study with one of them. In reality, her new teacher Vasilios is sympathetic to the cause of dethroning the current ruler. His apprentice Zhirin is secretly (or so she thinks) involved in a relationship with the leader of one of the peaceful rebellious groups and Vasilios asks Zhirin to introduce Isyllt to her companion.
Meanwhile, Xinai decides to get in touch with her people and becomes involved with one of the more violent revolutionary gangs, who will do anything to get their way – even if it means involving those who should remain dead.
This is a difficult book for me to review because it’s one of those I had very mixed feelings about. Basically, I struggled through the first third, thought the next third was ok, and ended up liking the last third of the book. Since I thought this novel had quite a few strengths, it’s hard to point out why exactly I wasn’t that fond of it to begin with. When rereading early parts of it for this review, it was decent enough so perhaps I just wasn’t in the mood to read it at the time. Regardless, the fact is I really didn’t particularly care about any of the characters or what happened for about two thirds of the book. Yet, I found that parts of the ending did leave me haunted by the fates of a couple of the protagonists so I did care at least a little about them by the time I was finished… even if I was tempted to put this one down for good several times.
One of the novel’s strengths was the writing. The prose was spare with some concise yet vivid descriptions. Infodumps are kept to a minimum, and Downum throws readers right into the story without explaining every little detail of the backstory. Background information is slowly revealed, which is a style I personally prefer to knowing a bunch of details about the world and characters right up front.
I did not find the actual story held my attention at first. Although I do like politicking and spying, I thought the plot moved rather slowly in the beginning. There was a lot of meeting contacts and introducing new characters, along with a side plot in which Isyllt performs an exorcism that I didn’t find all that interesting.
Although it never made me feel like I knew the characters, some of them were likable enough. Even though she had good reason for it with the death of her family long ago, Xinai was a bit too cold-hearted for my taste, particularly since I never felt like I was seeing underneath the surface of her character. However, I liked Zhirin and Isyllt and was very intrigued by the powerful, mysterious mage Asheris. Zhirin was idealistic and naive but also sweet and courageous. She could have easily been spoiled with her upbringing but she was quick to jump in and help out her cause. Isyllt was the main character and was therefore the one who was developed the most. Her experiences made her colder and pragmatic than the young Zhirin, yet she also had past sorrows that made her sympathetic. As a necromancer, she was feared and that made her a bit of an outcast.
Downum is not easy on her characters in the tradition of more realistic fantasy instead of the kind where everyone lives happily ever after. They are not invincible, and by the end of the book most of them have had it pretty rough. There are consequences to being part of a revolution and no major character comes away from it unscathed.
The world introduced in this first volume is intriguing. Its not the typical medieval European setting but an Asian one in which technology has advanced to the point of having guns, although some do still use swords, knives and other pointy objects for weapons. I’d like to know more about the types of mages. Zhirin has an affinity with the river and her power comes from water. As a necromancer, Isyllt can talk to ghosts and perform exorcisms, although she has some other powers such as communicating over distances using a mirror.
Overall, I have a lot of conflicted feelings about The Drowning City. The world and writing were both strong, but the characters and plot failed to connect with me until late in the novel. By the end, I was vaguely curious about what would happen next but probably not enough to seek the next novel with all the other books that are out there waiting for me to read them.