this was a real roller coaster of a read for me. it was offered to me by a publisher-pal, who confidently declared:
“I just think you will die for this book.”
between that prediction and the first part of the synopsis:
When a strange new visitor arrives—a woman riding an orca, with a polar bear at her side—the city is entranced.
I WAS SOLD!
but then further into the synopsis:
Blackfish City is a remarkably urgent—and ultimately very hopeful—novel about political corruption, organized crime, technology run amok, the consequences of climate change, gender identity, and the unifying power of human connection.
I WAS SOMEWHAT LESS SOLD!
and when the book arrived, i wasn’t wild about the michael-chabon-goes-neon-sign of the cover:
but i take death-by-bookgasm threats very seriously, so i was happy to give it a shot.
it starts out strong, with a tremendously intriguing teaser-prologue that delivers in both tone and content:
People would say she came to Qaanaaq in a skiff towed by a killer whale harnessed to the front like a horse. In these stories, which grew astonishingly elaborate in the days and weeks after her arrival, the polar bear paced beside her on the flat bloody deck of the boat. Her face was clenched and angry. She wore battle armor built from thick scavenged plastic.
At her feet, in heaps, were the kind of weird weapons and machines that refugee-camp ingenuity had been producing; strange tools fashioned from the wreckage of Manhattan or Mumbai. Her fingers twitched along the walrus-ivory handle of her blade. She had come to do something horrific in Qaanaaq, and she could not wait to start.
You have heard these stories. You may even have told them. Stories are valuable here. They are what we brought when we came here; they are what cannot be taken away from us.
The truth of her arrival was almost certainly less dramatic. The skiff was your standard tri-power rig, with a sail and oars and a gas engine, and for the last few miles of her journey to the floating city it was the engine that she used. The killer whale swam beside her. The polar bear was in chains, a metal cage over its head and two smaller ones boxing in its forepaws. She wore simple clothes, the skins and furs preferred by the people who had fled to the north when the cities of the south began to burn or sink. She did not pace. Her weapon lay at her feet. She brought nothing else with her. Whatever she had come to Qaanaaq to accomplish, her face gave no hint of whether it would be bloody or beautiful or both.
and THEN there’s a page-two mention of my most beloved “baby red pandas” (and other cute animals) “saved from extinction” and carried around in “polyglass cages,” which is my kind of world and where do i sign up?
however, after that early swoon, things got stickier and it took me a while to get into it. my leisure reading time is scarcer than it used to be, and this isn’t the kind of book that benefits from small-chunk reading: multiple characters, voices, perspectives; all living seemingly unconnected lives in different sectors of the city along different points on the wealth and status spectrum – it’s a panoramic view of the city through individual experiences, which is great, but while i was enjoying the separate storylines, the novel just wasn’t gelling for me as a whole until kaBOOM – i started suspecting the connections (usually just before they were revealed, so it’s nothing to brag about) and once the stories began crashing together, it was like being caught up in a dizzying, brutal whirlwind that does not care about which characters you’ve grown fond of or what your recently-developed predictive skills have anticipated. all bets are off and the ending is…still being absorbed. i’m not sure “ultimately very hopeful” is how i would phrase it.
i will say this – as much as i love this world and these characters, i really hope there isn’t a sequel planned. the emotional discomfort of the ending would be much less powerful if the question “what happens now?” is answered authoritatively and not just left to rattle around in the reader’s head.
but it’s damn good stuff and i may indeed have died for it a little.
if i had to design a readalike corner for this book, it would include:
Aurorarama – for steampunky cities and polar bears, o my!
Jade City – for organized crime in a fantasy setting that’s detailed down to its bones.
The Golden Compass – for steampunk cities, human/animal soul-bonded besties, and badass polar bears.
Borne – for – wait, did i mention giant bears? i did? okay, for giant bears in a world largely-destroyed. borne is considerably bigger than this fella, and his world further along in its decay, but those ripped-from-the-synopsis themes of “technology run amok” and “the unifying power of human connection” definitely apply to both.
Infinite Jest – but pretty much JUST the madame psychosis bits. and maybe soq.
good lord, that ending was … unexpected. review to come!
people to be jealous of #105: