The City in the MIddle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders
I really enjoyed Anders’s first novel, All the Birds in the Sky, which was published in 2016 (and reviewed here). In it, she managed to successfully blend a mix of urban SF and fantasy with a coming of age romance – all in a dystopian setting. I was looking forward to what she wrote next. She’s since been hailed as ‘this generation’s Ursula Le Guin’, and having read her second novel now, I can see where that comparison comes from, but it’s rather early in her writing career to confirm that epithet.
Her new standalone novel is set on a planet called January, colonised by Earthers a few generations ago. January, however is not an ideal home for it is ‘tidally locked’ with one half of the planet permanently dark and frozen, the other in burning sunshine. It’s only in the thin ring of habitable twilight that the humans can live, most of them in two large cities which are as different from each other as could be, politically, architecturally, culturally.
It begins with Sophie and Bianca, two students at the Gymnasium, the top college in the uptight city of Xiosphant. Bianca comes from a rich, upper class family, Sophie is the first to go to college from her working class farming folk, but the two girls who share a dorm are best friends. Xiosphant is hidebound by a myriad of rules that govern all the inhabitants’ lives – especially at ‘Shutters up’ time, when everyone is expected to sleep under curfew. This corresponds with the hottest part of the burning day. The students meet to discuss their oppression, and talk about revolution. Crime is minimal and punishment is draconian in this near totalitarian regime, so when Bianca takes a few food credits and Sophie takes the rap for the theft, Sophie is exiled. Ejected from the city and left to die – either the sun or the cold will get her.
But, she is rescued by the indigenous wildlife – the crocodiles as the human hunters call them, the Gelet as she later finds out. The Gelet are sentient, and live beneath the surface in a giant city, they communicate through a sort of contact telepathy. Having promised to help the Gelet, whose existence is also under threat, Sophie is able to sneak back into Xiosphant and work in a Bohemian tea-shop, one of the few areas where tense Xiosphanti can go to relax. Bianca thinks she is dead, but Sophie dare not reveal herself, she continues to befriend the Gelet though, learning much about them.
We then meet Mouth, who is a member of The Resourceful Couriers, a sort of mercenary band of traders who trek between Xiosphant and Argelan through the dangerous wastelands. Mouth is one of the last remaining descendants of her tribe from the Mothership, and is desperate to recover an artefact, a biblical equivalent, from the palace vaults. When she discovers that Bianca is now part of a rebel group who aim to despose the city rulers, she joins them, being fit and handy with a gun – maybe she can rescue ‘The Invention’. When Sophie hears of Bianca’s plans which are sure to fail, she saves Bianca who will despise her for letting her think she’s dead, and the two must flee Xiosphant, so head off with Mouth and the others for Argelan. It’s a difficult journey, they’ll encounter giant squid, pirates and more; some of the band will perish, but the Gelet help them and the girls all make it to Argelan which is as hip as Xiosphant was uptight – however this is more like a frontier city – ruled instead by the nine families.
We’re all set up for what’s really a political drama in a SF setting and except for a few brief reprieves, it tends to be rather humorless. There’s an awful lot going on throughout the novel, which runs to nearly 500 pages. If the main theme is cultural identity, and the main plot the on-off friendship between Sophie and Bianca, and Sophie and her new best friends the Gelet whom, once she tells the rebels that she communicates with the differently technologically advanced species and they pick their jaws up off the ground – they’d thought the Gelet were animals, everyone wants a piece of them. Then there is the side-plot of Mouth and the loss of her heritage. It all gets very complicated, and for me a bit overwrought. I felt that Anders could have taken a leaf from Becky Chambers books and have made Mouth’s story a separate novel set in the same milieu, following more of the stories of the different tribes that came in the Mothership perhaps.
That said, there are plenty of ends left untied, so I half-expect a return to January. I like Anders’ ideas, so I’m sure I’ll keep reading whatever she does next. I’d also love it if she moved over the crossover boundaries to have slightly older main protagonists that can match the scale of her world-building and ideas, I hesitate to say it was too ‘YA’ – well maybe the first section set in the college only. This was still a very enjoyable novel. (7/10)
Source: Review copy from publisher – thank you to Titan books
Charlie Jane Anders, The City in the Middle of the Night, (Titan Books, 2019) ISBN 978-175653193, hardback, 496 pages.