Sunday, September 6, 2009

Review of The Drowning City

The Drowning City
by Amanda Downum
384pp (Paperback)
My Rating: 5.5/10
Amazon Rating: 5/5
LibraryThing Rating: N/A
Goodreads Rating: 3/5

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.




ediFanoB said...

I'm nearly halfway through and therefore I read your good review with interest. You're right that it is not easy to connect with the characters. And I agree with you that the world and writing are both strong.
Now I will see whether I get a better connection to the characters in the second part of the book.

Memory said...

That's disappointing. I thought this one looked really good. I'm sorry to hear it was such a mixed bag.

Harry Markov said...

This is regretable, but I guess it's even less, because the Necromancer here doesn't raise the dead... I have this defect from too much Diablo, where I connect necros with raising the dead and not just plain ghost communication. *sigh*

I hat it, when you can't click with books.

Kristen said...

ediFanoB - I haven't seen that many reviews for this one so far but most of the ones I have seen have been very positive so I thought maybe it was just me.

Memory - It was disappointing since I thought this one sounded very good, too. A lot of the other reviews I've seen for this one have been a lot more positive than mine, though.

Harry - I hate it when I don't click with books either. Especially when I think they sound so good! Fortunately I'm reading a book now that has clicked with me a lot - Havemercy by Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennett.

*possible minor spoiler follows - shouldn't be a big deal but just in case*

Actually, there is one instance toward the very end of the book where Isyllt does animate a dead body for a little while. There's far more instances of ghost communication throughout the book, though.

Harry Markov said...

Ah, yes. Finally some body-corpsing! I know that properly the term has to do with speaking with the dead, than creating zombie bodyguards and assassins, but still.

PS: I am also reading a novella and a novel that I am clicking with a lot, but I am a lazy reader.

Kristen said...

Harry - What novel and novella are you reading?

I am absolutely loving Havemercy and am now mad at myself for not reading it sooner (even though it hasn't been sitting on the shelf all that long, I'm kind of wishing I'd bought it in hardcover instead of being cheap and waiting for paperback).

Harry Markov said...

Novel is "Scar Night" by Allan Campbell, which is super amazing. It challenges my imagination and vocabulary skills in a positive and enriching manner.

The novella is "Horn" by Peter M. Ball, which is soon to be reviewed as I plan on finishing it right now. Very different.

Donna said...

I've been waiting on your review and I had high hopes for this one. Maybe I'll pick it up one day but I trust your opinion.

Thanks for the honest review.

orannia said...

Thank you Kristen! There's nothing worse that a book you don't click with, especially when it that has such an interesting premise. I'm currently reading Graceling (Kristin Cashore), and even though there have been rave reviews it's just not working for me...and I don't know why. Am not sure whether to continue or admit defeat....

Fortunately I'm reading a book now that has clicked with me a lot - Havemercy by Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennett.

Ohhhh, I was wondering if you were going to read HaveMercy :) I can't wait to hear what you think.

ediFanoB said...

like you I read other (positive) reviews before. When I started reading I didn't expect the I could not connect to the characters. Therefore I liked to read that I'm not the only one. It happens and it is nothing bad. Beside this the book delivers a good world description and a strong writing.

Anyway I recommend to read the first three chapters online. I think that will help to decide whether you like to read more or not.

Artemis Grey said...

Hmmm. I was totally stoked about this book all summer. I'll still get a copy at the first opportunity, but I'm glad to know that I need to have the time to put my attention directly on it.

Kristen said...

Harry - I haven't heard of Horn so I'm looking forward to hearing more about it!

Donna - I had high hopes for this one as well. Oh well.

Orannia - Don't you hate that? When you have such high hopes and then it just doesn't click with you?

I read parts of the beginning of a few books I had around and ended up deciding Havemercy seemed the most interesting. So far I'm not at all disappointed in that one.

ediFanoB - Yeah, I agree that reading the excerpts is a good idea to get a feel for it.

A. Grey - Maybe you'll like it better than I did - a lot of others seemed to like it better. There are links at the end to the first 3 chapter on the author's website so you could try reading those to get a feel for it.

Benjamin said...

Thanks for the review, Kristen! Like a few others, I had been considering this book. I'll probably glance at it in the store, but give it a pass.

orannia said...

...and ended up deciding Havemercy seemed the most interesting. So far I'm not at all disappointed in that one.

Ohhhh, good. I've bitten the bullet and ordered this from the library and as it's listed as 'Available' I should have it soon! I have to finish DawnKeepers (Jessica Andersen) and start Eon: DragonEye Reborn first though :)

Kristen said...

Benjamin - You're welcome! Thanks for visiting!

Orannia - I think you will love Havemercy. It's very character driven and I love most of the characters (one was rather obnoxious at first but I'm starting to like him better). Like Monette's series, it's told from the first person perspective of a few different characters so it's fun to read all the different viewpoints.

orannia said...

Thank you Kristen! I can't wait to read HaveMercy and I think it will be queue-jumping :)

Question if I may please? While looking at HaveMercy on Amazon I saw mention of The Archer's Heart (Astrid Amara) and Luck in the Shadows (Lynn Flewelling). Just wondering if you'd read either?

Kristen said...

Orannia - I have not read either of those books. Actually, I've never even heard of Archer's Heart or Astrid Amara.

Lynn Flewelling is on my list of authors I need to read, though. I'd like to read her book The Bone Doll's Twin.

orannia said...

I found Archer's Heart quite by accident - it was listed as one of books bought by others on Amazon's HaveMercy I went to have a look, and it sounds interesting.

The first Lynn Flewelling book is at my local library...and is tempting me :)

Kristen said...

Orannia - I looked up Archer's Heart after you mentioned it and it does sound interesting!

If you read Lynn Flewelling, let me know what you think. She's been on my list of authors to read for a while.