After a brutal migraine derailed my plans last weekend, I am finally here to talk about Blackfish City!
Goodreads Rating: 4/5 Stars
Blackfish City is Miller’s first adult novel, and it sets the bar quite high for his subsequent works. There is so much to love in this book. An extremely diverse cast in a wildly imaginative setting face horribly realistic challenges in world ravished by climate change.
Qaanaaq is a floating city anchored to a geothermal vent in the arctic circle. All its heat and energy are siphoned from the vent below the city’s eight arms. I pictured it like a giant floating, eight-pointed, star-shaped steel dock. Each arm is a neighborhood, distinct from the others in wealth, culture, and populace. The city is very vibrant and alive, very much its own character in the story, as shown in the City without a Map segments of the narrative.
Technology plays a very vital role in the city, and Miller’s leaps in tech uses and ability are at once incredibly original and wonderfully plausible. Implants that act as smartphones, podcasts delivered direct to your ear via vibrations from the implant, etc. I’d love to get my hands on some of that!
I was extremely impressed by how much I loved Qaanaaq. And how quickly. It’s a gritty, visceral place full of despair and hope, and that’s established within the first few pages of this book.
Some ratings and reviews I’ve read complain about the early pages of the book, citing that it was too slow and the learning curve too steep. I, personally, disagree. The pace is purposefully meandering, showing the full breadth of Qaanaaq as the reader follows the characters through their ever day lives. The book is very atmospheric in tone early on, and then shifts to a more plot-driven pace once all the pieces are set in place.
Speaking of characters, there are several. The first we meet is Fill, a young, wealthy gay man who has just been diagnosed with the breaks, a sexually transmitted psychological disease. More on that in a minute. He’s also the only point of view character who is white. Everyone else is Inuit or part-Inuit.
Then there’s Ankit, an assistant to Arm Six’s political representative. She hates her job, but she worked hard to get it, and it gives her a slim opportunity to actually help the people around her.
Kaev is a journeyman fighter, owned by the a crime syndicate and paid to convincingly throw fights in the syndicate’s favor. Fighting is all he knows, all he lives for, and all he’s good for. Kaev shows us what the breaks can do to a person, shattering their consciousness with interruptions of memories that aren’t theirs until eventually they “break free from their body”. Their minds snap and their bodies die. And there is no cure.
And then there’s my personal favorite, Soq. Soq’s a messenger who uses magnetic boots to basically skate around the city at breakneck speeds to deliver anything and everything, legal and… not so much. They are genderfluid, use they/them pronouns, and are beyond pissed off at Qaanaaq. They can’t decide if they want to watch it burn or bring it to heel, but all they know is that someday, they’ll have the power to make that choice.
And of course, there’s the Orcamancer, the woman whose arrival sets the story of Blackfish City into motion. Masaaraq, the woman who came to the city on a skiff pulled by a killer whale, accompanied by a polar bear.
Miller does a wonderful job of weaving the various character narratives into one another, in subtle and very interesting ways. My only complaint, and I hesitate to even call it such, is that the ending did feel a bit abrupt.
I wanted more. I want to spend so much more time in Qaanaaq. I’m satisfied, mostly, with the ending as far as the characters are concerned, but the world? Nah. I don’t want to leave Blackfish City just yet.
Sam J. Miller tackles a lot of themes in this book. Capitalism, deregulation, climate change, revenge, regret, what it means to be a family, and the lengths people will go to in order to save the ones they love. All of these come up and are explored within the relatively short span of 336 pages. And they are handled well.
Honestly, I loved this book. I’m going to buy a copy, and I sincerely hope that Sam J. Miller will find his way back to Qaanaaq eventually, so that I can too. I’m going to find his short story Calved, his first adventure in this setting, simply because I can’t get enough.
Oh! It’s also worth mentioning that Miller’s first novel The Art of Starving (which I’ve yet to read) is nominated for a Hugo Award, the first year for the Best Young Adult Book category!
So hurry up and read his stuff already!