City of Hope & Despair jumps between two narratives. Tom, the street-nick turned unlikely hero with the ability to hide himself and others in plain sight, sets off as part of a small expedition upriver. Back in Thaiburley, Kat, her sister, and the Tattooed Men hunt the Soul Thief. Meanwhile, there is the distinct impression of a ticking clock, as a mysterious calcifying disease afflicts those in the city who have magical talent.
Whates flicks back and forth between these narratives so much that it might make your head spin. This works to the book’s advantage, however. I found myself getting tired of both stories. After a short time with Kat, I’d wonder what Tom and friends were up to outside of the city. Similarly, too long with the anaemic Tom, and I was yearning to see Kat get up to trouble. City of Hope & Despair suffers from a serious case of “grass is always greener” syndrome, but Whates still manages to make it work, barely.
Tom, fresh from saving the city with his ambiguous superpowers, is off on a quest. Yes, it’s quest time in City of a Hundred Rows world! Tom’s party includes the cunning assassin, Dewar; the intriguing Thaistess (priestess), Mildra; and a super-strength Kayjele named Kohn. With brains, spirit, and brawn backing him up, Tom travels upriver. It’s not entirely clear what they are seeking (good old Prime Master of Thaiburley and his amgiuous explanations again), but legend has it that not only is the river the source of the city’s magic but there is a goddess at the source of the river! So there!
In the city, Kat is chasing a Soul Thief. This malignant entity hunts people with magical talent and literally sucks them dry of it. It preys on the poor of the lower city, and so far the authorities have done nothing to stop it. So Kat and her band of antiheroes, the survivors of the vicious gladiatorial pits, are trying to fill the void. Eventually they hatch a half-baked scheme to use people with talent as bait. It doesn’t quite go as planned (thanks to some interference from local gang members). In the end, Kat has to make a deal with the enemy she knows to hunt the enemy she doesn’t.
Lurking behind these two stories, like a spider at its web, is the prime master. I love this guy. I hate that I love this guy, because he is bad for the plot like trans fat is for your heart—it can taste so good, but it is going to kill you one day. The prime master is one of those characters who has more answers than the reader—almost but not quite an author avatar—and manipulates other characters from behind the scenes. He confronts the mysterious bone disease that is attacking the talented of Thaiburley. It seems clear that he knows more about Tom’s quest than he has let on to Tom. And he personally gets involved in Kat’s hunt for the Soul Thief—though he has ulterior motives for sending her on a joint expedition with the Kite Guard into the Stain.
Tom, on the other hand, I still can’t bring myself to love. He’s just so plain and transparent. Whates gets into his head, and it’s full of the fluffiness of youth without any of the flaws. It’s true that Tom is no warrior. When it comes to his personality, his character, there are no flaws. He’s a nice guy who, in a high school setting, would probably get beat up a lot because he’s just so nice it’s sickening.
I’m conflicted about Kat. I like her, but I think Whates leans too much on the stereotype of the “strong, damaged badass girl” without seriously exploring it. To his credit, he gives Kat and her sister an interesting and fairly deep backstory about their childhood in the Pits. Kat’s adversarial relationship with her sister figures prominently in this book, coming to a head during the climax of her plot and resulting in a change to Kat’s status that will leave her uncertain and unbalanced in the next book.
City of Hope & Despair definitely has a lot going on, which isn’t quite the same as saying it has a lot going for it. Much like the first book, this one seem to reach for but never quite grasp the story it wants to be. I’m disappointed that it didn’t quite live up to my expectations, but after re-reading my review of the first book and thinking about it some more, I shouldn’t be surprised. Though this is a competent, complete story that sets the scene for what promises to be an intense third volume, City of Hope & Despair does not rise to the level of fascinating or epic.