Review of City of Light & Shadow by Ian Whates
City of Light & Shadow
by Ian Whates
Thaiburley. The City of a Hundred Rows. Nestled in a vast but somewhat unexplored world, Thaiburley is the centre of this story, almost a character itself. From the Pits and Kat to the Heights and the Prime Master, characters of different backgrounds have gradually come together to face the greatest threat this city has seen in ages. They’ve grown and changed in ways they didn’t think was possible. Though I haven’t always been the most enthusiastic reader of this series, Ian Whates leaves no doubt of his skill at plotting and executing a tight story arc. City of Light and Shadow is a fitting conclusion to this trilogy, in that it remains representative of the flaws that have propagated through it.
Whates wastes no time picking up where he left off in the last book. Unfortunately, it has been half a year since I read City of Hope and Despair, so it took a while for me to get up to speed. I was really looking forward to the answers that would come with Tom and Mildra meeting Thaiss … except they didn’t, not really. Instead Whates opts for vague revelations and leaves a lot open to interpretation. I can’t really fault him for this; he presents it in a sensible way. But this stifled exposition is one of my first regrets about the ending of this series: it seems like there is such a rich world here, but we never get to see much of it.
I really like the idea of Thaiburley. I like the tantalizing backstory that Whates dangles before us in this book. I like the idea that it’s a largely neutral, cosmopolitan place amid different kingdoms and empires. Dewar’s story arc in this novel follows the machinations of one such kingdom as Thaiburley’s internal conflicts weaken its political might. Nevertheless, everything about the world outside of Thaiburley still seems murky and ill-defined. And Thaiburley itself, while established in structure and character, has so many more secrets. So, I regret that we didn’t have a chance to explore the city in the way that it truly deserves, or to really tour the larger world that Whates has created.
So Tom becomes a bit of a superhero in this book, unlocking the true extent of his powers under the tutelage of Thaiss. When he returns to Thaiburley, he receives new marching orders. Once again, Tom is a pawn rather than a player. This is by design, however, with Tom reflecting on this characteristic throughout the story and attempting to make decisions based on his own desires. I appreciate this method of circumventing Tom’s passivity, even if it doesn’t seem entirely effective from my perspective as a reader. Tom is still basically connecting the dots of the plot points, and while there is a good reason for that, it doesn’t make the overall plot any more interesting.
Meanwhile, Kat is leading the Tattooed Men, working in an uneasy alliance with the Kite Guard to kill the Soul Thief. Got it? Kat gets short shrift in this book. Though present for most of the action with Tom, I don’t feel like her character develops much further. She exists more as a participant but less as a perspective character, something that I regret. Much like the missed opportunities to further flesh-out his world, Whates doesn’t use some of his principal protagonists to their full potential.
Really, City of Light and Shadow just feels rather messy. There are too many dangling threads that get tied off in inelegant or somewhat rushed ways. The overall result feels like a cross between handwaving and deus ex machina, the latter of which is literally true in a few cases. There is a wonderful, beautiful, compelling story lurking between these pages … but it’s not quite there, like a sculpture that isn’t quite true to life but could be. That’s what frustrates me so much about this series. They aren’t bad books, but they could so obviously be better.
I’d still recommend this series, but I’m not sure who is the best candidate to become a fan. These are uneven books. But at least Whates tries and strives for greatness, so while the stories might be a little messy and the characters not quite developed, there is no doubt that he has set his bar high and aimed for it. And that I can definitely appreciate.