Three new urban fantasies use cities to put their ideas, plots and characters in motion: Jo Walton’s “The Just City,” Michael Moorcock’s “The Whispering Swarm” and V.E. Schwab’s “A Darker Shade of Magic.”
Though “urban fantasy” is fairly new as a publishing category, the idea of cities as magical and important places has been around for eons. In award-winning author Jo Walton’s latest novel, “The Just City” (Tor, 368 pp., $25.99), we’re treated to a modern variation on one of the oldest tales of this kind, in which the Greek goddess Athena sets up an experimental community based on Plato’s “Republic.”
In Walton’s telling, Athena’s brother Apollo participates as a subject. He dons mortal form so he can be confined (along with 10,000 others) to the volcanic island where Athena and her cross-century scholarly recruits attempt to follow the Classical philosopher’s blueprint for Utopia.
Of course, the attempt fails. Plato was notoriously idealistic, and the unexpected issues arising from living daily life intrude upon his vision at every step, from the entitled suavity of a translator-turned-rapist to the dawning sentience of robots brought in to do the work of slaves. Walton’s unflinching accounts of these inescapable deviations from Plato’s plan combine with the deceptive simplicity of her prose to create an atmosphere similar to that which must have surrounded early archaeologists: a sense of beauty among ruins, of stilled vitality, of fugitive glimpses of a dream shining with the light of other days.
Michael Moorcock has also written a tribute to the glory of nostalgia, that bittersweet longing for what can never be again. London is the location of “The Whispering Swarm” (Tor, 480 pp., $26.99), this iconic and award-bestrewn SF veteran’s newest novel. Switching between passages set in the late 1960s, which read like memoir rather than fiction, and an apocryphal and semi-evanescent neighborhood floating freely throughout time, Moorcock gradually entangles his eponymous narrator in a plot to help Britain’s doomed King Charles I escape execution.
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This magical quarter of London, variously referred to as “Alsacia” and “the Alsacia,” is a den of engaging thieves and devious monks: a delightfully decadent milieu whose inhabitants can be brought back to life with prayer to repeatedly enchant us. In contrast, the sizable sections of the novel about Alsacia’s prosaic surrounding streets, filled though they are with plume-hatted guitarists and tarot experts clad in velvet, could probably have been cut back.
Like Moorcock, relative newcomer V.E. Schwab makes London her book’s focus. The fictional cosmology of “A Darker Shade of Magic”(Tor, 400 pp., $25.99) links four parallel universes through their different versions of the city.
Grey London, which corresponds to our world’s London circa 1800, is dirty and devoid of magic. Red London, home of the novel’s narrator and protagonist, trans-universe traveler Kell, is clean and prosperous and full of magic. White London is poverty-stricken and magic-challenged, while Black London is essentially dead, barred to Kell and his White colleague, the traveler known as Holland.
In a plot which will appeal to the young adult readership won by her three previous YA novels, Schwab introduces a cross-dressing teenage girl named Lila, a Grey thief, into Red London, then sets her and Kell on the trail of a dangerous artifact capable of destroying the precarious balance of power between universes.
Despite its somewhat predictable storyline, “Shade” possesses intriguing and strange settings and captivating idiosyncratic characters, and Schwab handles their interactions deftly. The book’s projected sequels are sure to give these strengths room to grow.