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
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?
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.)
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,