Book Review -The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders

Blogland,

I have a lot of feelings about this book, not all of them good. It took me a lot longer to get through than I expected and it was quite a bit of an uphill climb for about two thirds of the book. With that in mind, this review will have a different format than usual, simply because I really hate writing negative reviews and want to do my best to tell you what does work, in addition to what didn’t work for me.

My Goodreads Rating: 2/5 Stars

city in the middle of the night

First, the good. What worked, what I did like, and why.

  • Anders is a really great writer. Her prose is powerful, eloquent, and compelling. I didn’t find any lines where I stumbled or balked, but was frequently pleased with the lines I read, with their straightforward poetry and spartan beauty. I have no qualms with her writing, and plan to read more of her writing.
  • The world-building is high quality. Gradual, but without holding your hand. The book expects you to pay attention, but doesn’t punish you with an unduly steep learning curve. However, despite the title and the amount of time spent in the various cities on the book’s planet, I would not say that setting is the driving component of the book. It’s done well and with a subtle hand, but it is not the focus.
  • Tone. Anders wields atmospheric tension extremely well. There’s a consistent feeling of dread that steadily builds through the whole book, even in moments of relative peace.

So, what didn’t work? Prepare yourself for a bit of a rant and some mild spoilers.

The characters. This is written as a character driven novel with four major characters, all of whom are written as if you’re supposed to like them. Except… none of them are all that likable. Some of them are downright loathsome.

Now, I realize that’s a highly subjective statement. Characters I find interesting, likable, or relatable may leave you cold and disinterested. So take my comments with a grain of salt.

The main character is Sophie. Her story is told in the first person and she is a very meek, naive, and loving girl. So of course, she gets utterly used by Bianca who she supposedly loves.

Bianca is the worst and I hate her.

Mouth is the second “main” character, with a 3rd person narrative, and the only character I really liked in the whole book. But she gets treated like complete garbage by all the other characters, even Alyssa who seems to be her longtime girlfriend.

That was another gripe I had with the book. These four women all appear to be in committed lesbian relationships, but none of that is ever actually said. I assumed that Sophie’s expressions of love for Bianca were obviously romantic (they lay together spooning, Sophie tells Bianca that she loves her, that she’s loved in her arms… to me these are not platonic expressions or actions), but by the end of the book, when a memory exposes Sophie’s romantic feelings, Bianca freaks out and calls her perverted? What? What did you think was happening this whole time?

Image result for the city in the middle of the night cover
UK cover

And Mouth and Alyssa treat each other like crap the whole book, which is a trope I really don’t like. It’s so frequent in stories that members of long term relationships talk to each other with no respect because they’ve known each other for so long that it’s okay. It’s a personal pet peeve that I can’t stand, and even Anders shines a light on how bad their interactions were with Mouth’s persistent self-doubt and longing to leave her trauma behind her, as Alyssa suggests. As if it should be so simple.

So… Yeah. I had some problems with these characters. Their interactions and development (or lack thereof) made for a very bleak book. I read on, continuing to believe that by the end there would be some turn, some blossom of hope, but it never came. Instead, it just sort of ended without any real resolution, which makes me think there might be a sequel.

I don’t think I’ll be back for that.

My other criticism is the plot. It meanders, which jives with the whole atmospheric prose thing, and I should have expected it thanks to the blurb on the cover lauding Anders as “this generation’s Le Guin”.

(This is the part where I confess that I have yet to be able to finish one of Le Guin’s books… As a PNW SFF writer, I have just admitted an unforgivable sin. Sorry ’bout it.)

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The horror!

So, ultimately, maybe I’m not the best reader for this book. I tried really hard to like it. I refused to give up on it. I held on, determined to give The City in the Middle of the Night a fair shake. That’s all I can do.

According to Goodreads, this book seems pretty divisive. People love it, or people really don’t and apparently I’m in the latter camp.

I’ll be back later this week with a review for A Darker Shade of Magic, and I just started Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse today, so my reading is picking back up. Hooray!

Until then Bloggos,

 

BZ

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Book Review – The Strange Bird by Jeff VanderMeer

Hey Bloggos,

The Strange Bird is a short and bittersweet, and entirely dependent on Borne. You’ll understand little if you haven’t read VanderMeer’s novel set in the same world (you can read my review of Borne here).

Goodreads Rating: 4/5 Stars

the strange bird

This novella is very meandering. You’re meant to take it slow and absorb the Strange Bird’s observations on life beyond her laboratory. She relishes her freedom, but it is a lonely existence, because the other animals know that she isn’t quite natural. She was created in a lab, with biotech from birds, humans, and even squids. She was an experiment, and as civilization failed, she escaped into the wild.

Her journey, though slow, is purposeful. She has a homing beacon, demanding she fly in a very particular direction, and since she doesn’t have any other desires, she follows it.

Of course, she encounters several obstacles along the way. A lonely old man whose guilt has leeched at his mind. A cannibal, whose interest in the bird lies no further than selling her. And the Magician, who takes her and reforges her into the invisibility cloak we see used in Borne.

It’s this part of the story that requires that you read the novel. If you haven’t, you won’t understand who the Magician is and why her cloak is important. You won’t feel the mounting anticipation as you know what comes next, as you realize who the Strange Bird is about to encounter.

And you won’t enjoy the emotions and relief in seeing and hearing Rachel in Wick in the aftermath. You’ll miss out on a lot of nuance if you haven’t read Borne. But, the ending will still strike home. It is soft and sweet and rife with resignation. It isn’t what the Strange Bird wanted, but it is more than she thought she would ever have.

It is enough. And you learn what the story is really about, underneath all the layers of language and exploration, and the Strange Bird’s life of suffering.

I was surprised at how much this book affected me. I cried at the end, just a little, and felt satisfied, much more so than I did at the end of Borne.  I think the novella could be reread, that I could actually glean more by spending more time in the language, whereas I felt the prose in Borne was a barrier to understanding.

The Strange Bird snuck up on me, in a delightful, heartbreaking way. If you read Borne, and enjoyed it even a little, I recommend giving the novella a try.

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In my usual fashion, I am on to the next book, The Mechanical by Ian Tregillis. I’m only 44 pages in and it is already much different than I anticipated and not much like my typical reads at all. But, this is my vacation read so I’m taking a chance on it!

I’ll be back on Monday for the usual Goals Summary, and then it’s off to Germany!

 

BZ