A tide-locked world of endless day and night. A young woman banished into the freezing dark to die. A slim chance to forge an unlikely alliance. As the planet of January slides into a climate apocalypse, is it possible to turn away from the past and embrace a new future?
I have been meaning to read Charlie Jane Anders since All the Birds in the Sky came out, and a gorgeous hardback ARC from Titan Books (thank you!) was the perfect opportunity.
“If you control our sleep, then you can own our dreams… And from there, it’s easy to control our entire lives.”
The blurb starts with an intriguing quote, but don’t get the wrong end of the stick (yes, I did): City isn’t set in a technological dystopia where the government literally controls your dreams (that’s a whole other concept, and if someone has written it, please let me know – I’m all eyes).
Humanity landed on January when the Mothership gave out; a frazzled, feuding mass that had fought its way across the skies to a less than ideal new home. Because January is tide-locked: it takes as long to rotate on its axis as it does to a complete an orbit of its star, so it always presents the same face to the light. The result is half a planet where the scorching sun never sets, a fiery inferno of blazing light where no life can survive; and half a planet of freezing night, pitch black and murderously cold. Humanity clings to the narrow strip of dusk between the two sides in cities separated by dangerous wastelands and opposing philosophies.
Rigid Xiosphant believes that survival is dependent on discipline: they foster a sense of Timefulness and impose Circadian rhythms in spite of the eternal twilight, punishing citizens who do not work when the shutters are up and sleep once the shutters go down. They have almost as many currencies (each earned and spent in specific ways) as their language has markers for hierarchy. They are uncomfortable with obligations: gifts are as mistrusted as a man who talks about his ethnic descent. It doesn’t do to set yourself apart from – or above – your fellow citizens.
It feels an awful lot like a dystopian police state.
Quiet revolutionary Sophie takes the blame for a theft to save her beloved room-mate from punishment, believing that glamorous Bianca has a bright future and might change the world. She expects to be imprisoned; instead, she’s marched into the night to die.
Nobody survives banishment. The day will burn you to death; the night will freeze you – if its inhabitants don’t eat you first. When Sophie wanders into one of the monstrous ‘crocodiles’, she’s certain it’s the end. Instead, she discovers the feared monsters are psychic, able to share memories and emotions – and maybe, just maybe, willing to forge peace with these weird two-legged creatures that have occupied the dusk.
So far, so much as I expected from the blurb. But if you’re hoping for a story about first contact and an exploration of the Gelet (as Sophie comes to call them), you may be as disappointed as I was.
Don’t get me wrong: The City in the Middle of the Night is beautifully written and deeply imaginative. I was intrigued by the intricate society of Xiosphant, although we get a very one-sided view of it (is it as terrible as Bianca believes? Does the system really deserve to get torn down? It’s hard to tell, although the enforcers are a bad look). I really looked forward to exploring the culture of the Gelet – but Sophie doesn’t stay with them; she sneaks straight back into Xiosphant. The Gelet barely appear until the last 100 pages, making only fleeting appearances to rescue Sophie and/or introduce turmoil.
Instead, the focus is on Sophie’s emotional journey. She struggles with PTSD after her banishment, and with her feelings for the largely self-absorbed and frankly unpleasant Bianca. Sophie is happier when she remains passive. Occasionally, she has an outburst of violent rage as her frustration boils out of her; mostly, she is consumed by seething guilt over things that she feels she has done wrong. Sophie needs to learn to value herself and trust her judgement; and to turn her back on the past if she is to help shape a new future. It’s a big ask, and a big story.
I just wasn’t very engaged by it. I wanted to care more than I did; I sympathised, but remained distant.
In contrast to Sophie, we get Mouth: last of the nomadic Citizens, the only humans who dared to live outside the cities. Mouth is fierce and ruthlessly capable, quick to anger and to kill, hiding her grief and loneliness from herself as much as from her new companions. With her people long dead, she has joined the Resourceful Couriers, a group of smugglers who shuttle back and forth between Xiosphant and Argelo (closed to one another after various wars) with contraband.
Mouth is spiky with self-interest, armoured against caring lest she lose her people all over again. She gets involved with Bianca’s revolution in the hope of using it as cover to steal a relic of her people from the Palace. She’s partnered with Alyssa, graduate of a group of Argelan arsonists; and if the story had been all about them, I might have been won over. I have a weakness for remorseless women who are won to a cause, after all.
Through Mouth and Alyssa we learn more about the world and the past. Argelans are proud of their heritage, and honest about the crimes committed on the Mothership. But their relationship is almost as toxic as Sophie and Bianca’s, although it’s easier to sympathise with Alyssa than Bianca: Mouth is hard to live with, and benefits from some tough love. But there’s no excuse for committing your partner to a cause without their informed consent. Still, I was more interested in Alyssa’s efforts to help Mouth find out more about the Citizens – and Mouth’s slow coming to terms with her past – than in Sophie’s journey.
It’s not that not a lot happens in much of The City in the Middle of the Night – to the contrary – but I found the pacing awkward. It meanders through riots and crises without much sense of direction. Perhaps if I’d grasped from the start that this was an intensely personal story – Sophie’s journey, not Xiosphant’s or the Gelet’s – it might have felt measured. Instead, I found it slow.
We get hundreds of pages of toxic relationships and the gang warfare of Argelo (and oh, on one level I’m so disappointed that the options in this future are a socialist police state or gang-controlled anarchy. There are passing references to other cities, but it’s unclear if they have actually survived – or are any better).
I was frustrated that Anders has clearly given long, hard thought to the world-building and the history of its peoples, but shows us little more than teasing glimpses. Xiosphant won’t talk about the past; Argelo has forgotten much of it. The Brilliant Age on Earth is nothing more than a reference; we can’t know whether Ulaanbataar, Zagreb and the rest were the leading cities of this possible future as their descendants believe, or whether the Mothership was a flight into the dark in hope of a brighter future. The voyage itself was harrowing, riven with horror as the engineering and social design of the generation ship failed. Learning to grapple with season-less, timeless January was an epic, awful challenge.
I studied archaeology, dammit, I’m a dog with a bone when I can sniff this sort of world-building in the background. And unfortunately, those elusive traces interested me far more than the story being told in the present (although the Gelet – the ‘crocodiles’ in the room – could have turned me around, they were kept in reserve until the very end, their appearance too late and too fleeting).
And just to show how hard to please I am, when we were shown more in the penultimate act (SPOILER (mouse over to read) when Sophie finally cuts herself free of Bianca and joins the Gelet) it felt like an info dump, overwhelming and unwieldy. It must feel like that for Sophie, too, but if so I’m not convinced Anders does herself any favours in making the reader share Sophie’s experience (and with none of Sophie’s other benefits).
The final act felt more like a book-end than a conclusion. Sophie is on the final stage of her journey (fighting it all the way; and still being sucked into Bianca’s vortex), but Mouth and Alyssa stopped making sense for me. Having remembered her past, Mouth is left adrift; and while I quite liked that she embraces a new cause in response, the way this happens felt convenient to the plot, rather than a natural development. Similarly, the final scene – SPOILER (mouse over to read) Alyssa embracing the cause – felt anti-climatic (or, cynically: Alyssa embracing yet another cause; this isn’t closure, it’s just another cycle we’ve seen several times already).
Those looking for a slow-moving, richly-imagined story exploring how hard it is to disentangle ourselves from toxic relationships, and how difficult it can be to realise our potential may find The City in the Middle of the Night highly rewarding. Those who come looking for a thoughtful story of first contact and climate apocalypse (or dystopian city states that control your dreams, ahem) may be as frustrated as I was.
I really wanted to love this book. I love the elements that went into it. I love the prose style its narrated in. But in the end, while it was a story I appreciated, it just wasn’t a story I wanted to read.
I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.