Adrian Tchaikovsky, City of Last Chances, Head of Zeus, 2022.
City of Last Chances is the love child of Night Watch by Terry Pratchett and Hav by Jan Morris while being entirely its own thing with a polyphonic narrative. I loved it, ok? Go buy it. Don't even read the review. Just go get it.
The city of Ilmar lives under occupation. The Palleseen conquered it and now rule it ruthlessly: the industrial production is determined by their needs, they negotiate what is taught at university, old religions have been banned... The inhabitants of Ilmar don't take it kindly, but the Palleseen came with a heavy military force. They watch suspiciously the Allorwen, refugees from a nation conquered by the Palleseen years ago and who fled to Ilmar only to find it conquered in turn, but also the Anchorwood, where people enter to find another world. Last but not least, there's this whole section of the city where you really shouldn't go, not if you value your sanity.
In this city, everything could explode at any moment. Or maybe not, because human beings love a good rant but are they really ready to fight?
City of Last Chances is the story of a revolution. Does it happen or not, I'll leave you to find out. But Tchaikovsky examines with nuance and depth the workings of of a revolution, the conditions that could create it, the consequences it might have, the different factions involved and their level of involvement. Through the way he narrates it, you can feel a deep understanding of the social forces at work, but also of the individual stories that compose those social forces.
And like most stories about a revolution, City of Last Chances is a story about social inequalities. The novel focuses on five factions: the aristocracy ("Of course we're going to help with your revolution. As long as we end up on top at the end."), the criminal underworld, the students (naive, full of ideals and craving role models), the workers, and the refugees. The chapters with the workers are the ones that grabbed and moved me even more than the others. Again, depth and nuance are the two keywords for this novel, and Tchaikovsky reaches incredible heights with those chapters.
Each chapter follows a different points of view, although most are recurring, giving a strong sense of a unified narrative. I particularly enjoyed Yasnic, the sole priest of a god no one worships anymore. Yasnic is, like other characters, an outlier. Someone who lives in this city and hopes no one will see him. He'll find himself at the centre of events but will refuse the role granted to him by circumstances. Ruslav was another favourite: a criminal hired for killing or beating people up, he'll experience a metaphysical shock when faced with paintings done by a student and will question his identity, based on his violent abilities, throughout extraordinary circumstances.
All the points of view are related to each other and the depth - again! - of the relationships between the characters or the factions truly is impressive. They also all follow a chain of causality that grinds its way implacably from the start, from an event that doesn't seem so important and that'll change all their lives.
Of course, the fantasy aspect is very present too. I was particularly impressed by the baroque and grotesque aspects of the Reproach, an area of the city that's been abandoned to magic and the spirits of a long dead branch of the aristocracy. The Anchorwood, that promises other worlds (to conquer, to flee to, or to return to) created a fascinating contrasting point to the city: the gateway remains still while the city thrashes in the throes of squirmishes and protests. Unknowable, the passage is a chance, whereas the outcomes of the revolution seem set in stone.
Tchaikovsky, with the apparent ease and flowing prose we know so well and enjoy so much, weaves a masterpiece of a story. City of Last Chances is a story for our times and a story inspired by times past, but also with the inventiveness that characterises his novels. As I said earlier: I loved it, ok? Go buy it. Just go get it. Now.
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All reviews are spoiler free unless explicitly stated otherwise.
I only review stories I have liked even if my opinion may be nuanced. It doesn't apply for the "Novels published before 1978" series of blog posts.
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