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‘Does it bother you not at all to bind ghosts?’ he asked at last. His thumb slid across the knuckles of her left hand, not quite touching the ring. ‘To enslave them? Not even spirits, but the souls of your own kind.’

‘Every ghost I’ve bound committed crimes that would see living men imprisoned or executed. You wouldn’t let a living man who tortured or murdered his family go free – why let him do such things in death?’

His lips twisted. ‘I know many torturers and murderers who walk free, and I suspect you do too. Even so, it still seems…cruel.’

Ah memories. This time last year I was still pumping out reviews every day, even during the festive season. Now I have the luxury of taking my time with my reading – too much time some of you might be thinking. Just the other week I was browsing in Kinokuniya and decided that I wanted to read a fantasy book written by a woman. Perhaps that strikes you as a strange prerequisite, but to my mind the success of Twilight and its ilk proves that there is a huge demand for fantasy literature among women, but the stereotype of the basement dwelling male fan persists. In many respects The Drowning City challenges those preconceptions of fantasy literature, a point I will return to below.

Isyllt Iskaldur is a secret agent from the kingdom of Selafai who travels openly as a necromancer to the occupied territory of Symir. Her mission is to undermine the expansionist Empire that rules the city. The Assari conquerors are resented by the native people of Symir as well as the unquiet dead and it seems all she will need to do is fund the efforts of the revolutionary movement that seeks to topple the occupiers and her task will be complete.

Complications, however, soon ensue. One of her party shortly after their arrival becomes troubled by the nature of their mission and is tempted to defect to the rebels. What’s more, there are schisms within the movement itself, with a group known as Dai Tranh favouring more extreme methods that threaten the lives of the occupiers as well as the native inhabitants of Symir. Then there is her abilities as a necromancer suddenly becoming highly in demand, as spirits are rising up out of anger at the occupation they died fighting to prevent and possessing the bodies of their descendents. Finally Isyllt encounters an imperial mage named Asheris, whom she suspects is himself a double-agent of some kind. In setting in motion the plot of her masters to cripple the Assari Empire, has Isyllt only succeeded in wiping out a city of innocents instead?

What I find fascinating about Downum‘s vision is her fusion of Sino-Arabian influences. The Assari broadly parallel the Ottoman Empire, whereas the culture of Symir is devoutly concerned with spirits and the revering of ancestors. Isyllt encounters a devouring spirit known as a ganghi, a concept similar to Chinese ‘hungry ghosts‘.

This is a welcome inversion on typical fantasy tropes founded on Anglo-European mythology and folktales. I have discussed often on this site the debt modern fantasy owes to Tolkien’s raiding of Saxon and Nordic myths. The Drowning City goes so far as to feature a climax familiar to fans of The Lord of the Rings. Of course the inversion of the X-Y axis of fantasy continues with the genders of these characters, most of whom are female as opposed to the stock standard sword-wielding male bruisers weighing down the shelves in your local store’s fantasy section with their overly detailed biceps.

If I had a complaint about The Drowning City it would be that the points of view of characters chop and change within chapters quite rapidly, with nary a telltale paragraph symbol. I suppose the crests and emblems of Robert Jordan and George R.R. Martin have left me spoiled in that respect.

This remains a confident and fascinating mixture of storytelling and worldbuilding. The first book of Downum’s series The Necromancer Chronicles, I look forward to the continuing adventures of Isyllt. Betrayal, political intrigue, magic and fraught romance – Downum delivers it all.

The Drowning City by Amanda Downum

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That there were two sides to Hamzah Effendi was common knowledge. The family man and the crime boss, Jekyll Effendi to Felaheen Hyde. Offend the first and he’d buy out your company and close it down. Offend the second and he’d slaughter your children, bulldoze your house into the ground and sow that ground with rock salt. There was something very biblical about some of those reports on file.

I picked this book up in the library as both the title and premise intrigued me. This is a novel set in an alternate reality where the Ottoman Empire never failed, yet similarities with our world remain. What I did not realize was that this book is the second entry in Courtenay Grimwood’s Arabesk trilogy. Consequently I was a little at a loss when characters appeared without introduction. I imagine the first book in the sequence, Pashazade, probably explains exactly what the points of difference within this alternate timeline are.

Nevertheless I was able to get to grips with the plot of the book, which begins as a murder mystery set in the city of El Iskandriyah, with the investigation conducted by Ashraf al-Mansur (referred to as Raf) uncovering a history of war atrocities and child soldiers. At various points the book introduces flashbacks to a war in the Sudan, which slowly reveals the truth behind the present-day events.

Our hero Raf is an enigmatic figure, whose identity is shrouded in mystery, having arrived in Iskandriyah under false pretences and wrangled himself a position within the police force. The story begins on the 27th October, with Raf acting as Magister to a trio of international judges called to oversee the trial of industrialist and rumoured crime boss Hamzah Effendi. We then cut to July of that year and witness the events that led to the trial. Hamzah is framed for a series of ritualistic murders involving American female tourists in the city. The victims are found to have been partying at clubs owned by the businessman and his own daughter Zara is rumoured to be a target of a kidnapping plot. Realizing that he no longer has the protection of the Governor General Koenig Pasha, Hamzah tries to convince his daughter to leave the country. She refuses believing that he is only looking to marry his daughter off following her embarrassing and very public rejection at the hands of Raf in the previous book.

As more murders occur, each with Hamzah’s initials carved into the wrists of the victims, Raf discovers that there is more than one killer involved. Former European intelligence agents and Soviet Spetsnatz soldiers are carrying out copy cat killings and arson attacks on the city. Furthermore the Governor General seems to know more than he’s letting on, dropping cryptic hints that lead Raf to investigate Hamzah’s past as a child soldier in the Sudan and the mysterious Colonel Abad, presumed dead. On top of all that he has to keep his precocious niece Hani under control and figure out how he really feels about Zara, who may be married off to the young Khedive for her own protection.

I enjoy alternate history novels, imagining how history might have gone if significant events had turned out different. Not only do they allow for interesting science fiction yarns, but they throw new light on how we perceive historical progress. World War I is generally seen as a response to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Official accounts do not describe it as a resource war over oil in the Middle East. In Effendi we have a strong, independent Muslim North Africa that controls its natural resources, while mention is made of a more insular United States and there is an offhand remark regarding Scotland’s oil reserves having been depleted. The lingua franca of the region is Arabic first, Hebrew Spanish and French next, with English a distant fourth or fifth. It’s an interesting premise for what is a fairly standard murder mystery/political thriller plot.

The hero Rah himself enjoys certain mysterious physical advantages that are ascribed to extensive childhood surgical implants. He has visions of a fox that advises him on what to do, courtesy of a device in his brain that acts like an augmented reality filter.

What this all adds up to is a quite entertaining and inventive yarn, though strangely for a novel set in an Arabic country, references to Christian Hell and Dante feature throughout. A fun romp.

 

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