Quest for Lost Action – The City by Stella Gemmell

the city

It’s difficult to know how to approach Stella Gemmell’s The City. She is the widow of one of Britain’s preeminent heroic fantasy writers, David Gemmell, author of Legend, one of the genre’s finest novels. She was (I believe) David’s editor for his entire career, and cited as co-author on his last book, published posthumously. The City is Stella Gemmell’s debut novel, but clearly she is an experienced writer. It seems unfair to compare her work to her husband’s, disrespectful even, after all they’re separate people, yet it’s almost impossible not to.This is partly due to the obvious similarities between The City and many of David’s novels. Most of his later novels were historically based, and although The City is out and out fantasy, it feels very much based on real-world historical attitudes and cultures. Characterisation is superficially similar. Most of David’s fantasy novels contain a superannuated warrior giving his all to defend the weak, always in impossible circumstances. The City has them in abundance. Yet here they are given a frailer side. David’s characters were rarely given to introspection. Stella’s have motives beyond defend the weak and try not to die. Unfortunately, as a result, all the pace has been sucked out of the novel.The City is a tapestry; a weave of slighted characters, plotting to avenge themselves against a corrupt megalomaniac. Supreme ruler of The City (it is never given a name) ‘The Immortal’ is rarely seen, yet revered and feared by his subjects. At his behest, The City is perpetually at war with it’s neighbours. Countries and realms have been and gone, but the war, and The City, grinds on and on. The City itself is made up of layer upon layer of buildings. New structures have been thrown on top of old, giving rise to a subterranean city that is as busy and populous as those parts at street level. The City is a labyrinth of streets, tunnels and sewers, twisted and gnarled with age, much like The City’s politics; Byzantine in many ways. It is here in which the novel’s main problem lies. Those who wish to bring The City down feel like they are going into battle with the Civil Service. The City has become a bureaucracy for waging war, it’s ruler a faceless government official.It’s a potentially a neat device. A ruler who is never seen, who is clearly several hundred years old. He’s known to use proxies; does he look old? Young? has there been more then one Immortal, or has it always been the same man? This uncertainty makes assassinating him distinctly more difficult, but it’s hard as a reader to care what happens. War is bad, we’re told. The Immortal doesn’t care about how many of his subjects die in his wars, we’re also told, but the man himself is hardly ever in the novel, so it’s hard to care that much what happens to him.

Before long it’s obvious that something unusual is going on, but exactly what isn’t made clear until the novel’s dying stages. Not in itself an issue, but the reveal is awkward in the extreme. It’s like a James Bond film; one of the ‘baddies’ goes to great lengths to explain what’s going on to one of the ‘goodies’ that he has at his mercy. This level of exposition is unforgivable in any novel, especially after 500 pages of hard reading. (Said baddie then does something completely inexplicable, that I can’t describe because I’ll spoil the book, but it makes no sense whatsoever.) There is no real hint as to any of this as we read, so it’s impossible to meet this horrible example of ‘telling’ with much more than a shrug of the shoulders.

There is some nice meditation on the futility of war, but that alone isn’t worth the entry fee. Read All Quiet on the Western Front instead. It’s not a fantasy novel, but it’s only half the length and says ten-times more. There are some strong characters in this book, but the novel is crying out for one of them to take the story by the scruff of the neck and go looking for a plot. David Gemmell’s plots were often too simplistic, this one is so subtle, it doesn’t really exist. The City contains some nice ideas, some beautiful prose, and even one or two memorable characters. What it lacks is any heart, and its far far too long. Things do rally before the end. The last hundred pages are exciting, but if I hadn’t been reading out of loyalty to David, I would have given up long before I’d reached them.

Many Thanks to September at Transworld for sending me an advanced copy of this book. 

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4 thoughts on “Quest for Lost Action – The City by Stella Gemmell

  1. This is exactly how I felt about the novel. Incredible prose, but it lacks the main elements that made David’s writing so compelling for me: an epic narrative, and a water-tight plot.

    Without discussing too much, The City’s ending is entirely reliant on deus ex machina and very much renders the actions of the main characters irrelevant in my mind.

    That said, I would love to see another work by Stella, hopefully with these kinks ironed out.

    1. Thanks William, you’re absolutely right about the ending making the rest of the book largely irrelevant. It’s a shame as I think it had the makings of an epic conclusion. Whilst I would welcome further books by Stella Gemmell, I’m not sure another tome this size would force itself to the top of my to-be-read pile!

  2. I have to say that The City has to be one of the most gripping, entertaining and brilliant books that I have read in a long time. In the words of Oz Clarke you don’t have to be a connoisseur to enjoy a glass of wine!
    I will look at her husbands work to entertain the rest of my summer. On a final note The City was passed onto a friend whose reading tastes are different from mine, she loved the book too, raved even, and we agree it reads like watching a block buster movie.

    1. Thanks Rachel, Glad you enjoyed the book more than I did. All I can say if you don’t read a lot of fantasy an you loved this, then you have an awful lot of great reading ahead of you!

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