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

the city in the middle of the nightThe City in the Middle of the Night
Charlie Jane Anders

Tor, 2019
★★★☆☆

The City in the Middle of the Night takes great care to develop its characters, character arcs, character dynamics, and its worldbuilding, and pretty much forgets all about having a cohesive plot. The biggest criticism of this book would be that it is meandering and slow. It’s not that it doesn’t know where it wants to go – now that I’ve finished, I can step back and see the general plot arc meant to be established here – but it doesn’t get there clearly or quickly enough. There’s a lot of waffle and pointless journey stuff in between all the important bits, and this book, already rather short, could have been way shorter.

I wasn’t especially impressed by the worldbuilding, perhaps because I don’t think I ever really understood it. I don’t know whether that’s because I’m not a science person at all (I had to look up what a “tidally locked planet” even was) or whether it just wasn’t explained very well; I certainly had trouble visualizing what this world looked like and struggled to retain a lot of important worldbuilding information because of the weird way it was conveyed. I think if I sat down and talked with a scientist about all the ideas presented here I’d probably be more impressed, but I shouldn’t have to do that.

I was also unimpressed by the way in which things came together – or didn’t. There are so many disparate parts here and I’m not sure that they all really fit together in any satisfactory way. I especially was perplexed by the inclusion of the Gelet species, since they just seemed shoehorned in as a plot device to add some commentary on planetary colonialism and to embellish Bianca’s arc. I also found the time we spent in the Gelet city to be the most dry and boring portion of the entire book; I struggled to get through it and it was barely thirty pages.

The entire structure of this book was very confusing to me. It felt like a series of vignettes rather than a single cohesive whole, almost as though it was written to be short stories and then pasted together. There’s so much back and forth. There’s so many themes tossed in and then never explored properly. I’m also confused by the choice to have Sophie’s POV be set in first person present while Mouth’s POV is in third person past. Both of their timelines are happening simultaneously and they interact constantly, so I’m not sure what the reasoning behind this was. It was odd and jarring.

Where the book shines is in its characters and their relationships. First there is Sophie and Bianca, a toxic relationship if I’ve ever seen one, with Sophie pining after Bianca, an absolutely stunning character illustration of the realities of privileged upbringing and revolution. Bianca is probably the most fascinating character in the whole book; she’s not quite a villain, precisely, but she’s not a good person, and the ways in which she manipulates Sophie for her own ends are so painfully obvious to everyone but Sophie, and her overall arc reeks such tragedy and villainy it’s practically Shakespearean. One of my favorite quotes is “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” and Bianca embodies this so well!

Then, contradicting those two, we’ve got Mouth and Alyssa, who have a much more balanced and supportive relationship with one another, and who always have each other’s back. While Sophie is struggling with anxiety and PTSD (portrayed excellently, by the way), Mouth is coming to terms with the reality of her memories of her people, and it’s a rude awakening. It’s an interesting musing on cultural memory; to me Mouth’s people seemed more like a weird cult, but because she was a child when they died, she has come to venerate them almost as deities. Coming to terms with the reality of their flaws and complexities completely upends her, and it’s really interesting to watch her shift and change and try to fit her jagged edges into a new shape.

So, great character work, great character arcs, great thematic explorations of these layered relationships. I find myself wishing that these characters’ stories had played out in a completely different setting. Part of it is that I’m not a big science fiction reader; something about stories set in space just doesn’t appeal to me as much as stories set in quasi-medieval fantasy locales. But the other part of it is that the worldbuilding felt like set dressing for the stories of these characters, like the world didn’t really matter in the face of these small, personal dramas playing out. These characters are just so interesting and so compelling; they’re why I didn’t DNF this book. But they are bogged down by the inscrutable worldbuilding.

I completely appreciate why this was nominated for a Hugo; it’s definitely a rich novel packed full of themes ripe for discussion, but that’s also why I struggled to love it: it feels much more like a thought experiment and narrative exploration than it does a cohesive novel.

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