Culture is a conversation. So intertextuality is an important part of literature, because literature is one of the vehicles of that conversation. What we think of books and stories is influenced by what we’ve previously read. Similarly, authors are influenced by what they read, and the books that sell give rise to trends in the types of fiction (and even non-fiction) that make it to the shelves. Sometimes I find myself reading a book and comparing it, no matter how hard I try, to another book, even if the similarities are few and far between. The connection, once established, is very difficult to sever.
City of Dreams & Nightmare has this overt atmosphere of fantasy to it. There’s magic and spells and demons … but there’s technology that might or might not be arcane, like the kite cape and sunglobes. Ian Whates mixes his magic with a sort of pre-Industrial urban metropolis in a style heavily reminiscient of China Miéville and Perdido Street Station. There’s a subtle but persistent steampunk vibe running throughout this book. It even includes two characters, the dogmaker and the more sinister Maker, who manipulate flesh and machine in a manner that reminds me of Miéville’s Remade. Unfortunately, this comparison does Whates no favours. While Whates is a competent writer with good ideas, City of Dreams & Nightmares never quite crystallizes into the story it wants to be.
It doesn’t help that my ebook edition doesn’t have the section breaks clearly marked. All it does is not indent the first paragraph of the new section—a distinction that is not easy on the eyes. Furthermore, the two major protagonists both have names that begin with T—Tylus and Tom! This is hardly a huge problem, and the formatting issue is far from Whates’ fault. But it’s a small annoyance that made reading the book slightly more difficult.
As far as the story goes, Whates sets up a great plot with some very cool characters. Tylus and Tom are both all right. Tylus is a newly-minted Kite Guard, a member of an elite squad of police that can unfurl capes and swoop through the multi-tiered city of Thaiburley. Although his parents are pleased with his vocation, Tylus feels unprepared and undeserving of his status. When he witnesses a murder and fails to apprehend the culprit, Tylus jumps at the chance to be assigned to the case, even though it means going down the City Below, Thaiburley’s lowest, meanest row.
What Tylus doesn’t know is that the supposed culprit, a street-nick (thief) named Tom, has been set up by a scheming arkademic. Nothing more than a dupe, Tom was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He returns to the City Below but winds up far from the home territory of his gang. With the help of a young woman named Kat, who fought in the Pits as a child, Tom makes it home only to discover the streets engulfed in chaos created by the Maker.
So even as Tom is framed for murder and Tylus tries to track him down, we have two additional plots: Tom trying to make it home, and the Maker’s sinister plans for the street nicks in the City Below. Whates wastes no time setting these plots in motion and keeping them going … and therein lies the problem. For Whates has created an intriguing setting and interesting plots, but he plays them too close to his chest, allowing neither reader nor characters to become invested in the stakes or the outcomes.
So we get scenes where two characters will discuss Tom and his abilities in a way that clearly telegraphs they know more than he does (or we do). These characters are, if not precisely manipulating events behind the scenes, playing a larger game that we don’t get to see. But it’s all done in the vaguest of language, and that’s what makes it so intolerable. It’s a problem that plagues books with the farm-boy-style hero who has to answer the Call: inevitably you end up with characters who know more about the hero’s potential than he or she does, and if you aren’t careful, the end up talking in clichés.
I could overlook those scenes as merely clumsy. Unfortunately, even though there is plenty of conflict and excellent action sequences in City of Dreams & Nightmare, the resolution leaves me with the feeling that Tom was never in any real danger at all. Even as other characters go off to face the very real possibility of death (or at least some fun dismemberment), Tom gets whisked away at the eleventh hour so that another character can explain how he can save the day with his powers, and how this has all been part of a larger plan all along. Imagine Lord of the Rings if Gandalf showed up at Mount Doom and said, “Don’t worry, Frodo; I got this,” before nonchalantly tossing the One Ring into its fires. Imagine if Luke made it to the flagship only to find Yoda already engaged in a duel with Darth Vader. In City of Dreams & Nightmare, Tom doesn’t save the day; the wise people who work the angles behind the scenes save the day. And with that one decision, a story that could have been excellent instead becomes mundane and boring.
I have to admit that the setting is pretty cool. I liked the explanation Whates provides for why Tom has these abilities; if this were straight-up science fiction, Tom would essentially be a kind of inadvertent hacker. As it is, I will read the next book in this series because (a) I already bought it and (b) it could definitely still improve. I’m not going to write this series off, because Whates clearly has the imagination and the skill to write good books. With City of Dreams & Nightmare though, some of the important details got muddled along the way. The result is a book that’s promising but, in the end, somewhat let me down.