Book Review – The City by Stella Gemmell

My review of The City by Stella Gemmell

The City ancient, embattled and ruled upon high by an Immortal Emperor. Long years of war have turned a once green and fertile land into a wasteland where few survive and even fewer foresee its end. Men, women and children lay a path of blood for the fevered and callous mind of an undying and alien ruler. A defiant few have desperate hope in a man long thought dead, lost within his own mind, surviving in the darkness of the city’s vast sewers system.

I started The City with a certain predisposed literary association between her late husbands work and her own. Thankfully I was wrong, The City is an epic fantasy story written in its own style. Stella has given us a complex but easily read tale and I was pleasantly surprised with how the story and characters were portrayed. There is a depth of history depicted that doesn’t overwhelm the reader and immerses you into the world of The City, at times seeing the walls of the city surrounding you, your nerves on edge as you walk the sewers beneath the city in complete darkness and feel the tension of the protagonists as they battle to survive.

As you would expect in a story with an epic theme there are strong and quickly established characters; a fallen general, desperate soldiers and the obligatory orphans, set against a backdrop of revenge, loyalty, honour and survival. There are few clear magical elements in the world of The City; magic is conveyed in characters like the Immortal Emperor. The magical interactions that do arise revolve around the concept of the Immortals called the Serafim, like the Emperor. The Serafim are described as travellers from someplace else, their “magic” manifests in their long lives, as well as one or two other overt abilities which I am not going to be divulging – they don’t happen very often and it’s worth waiting for the surprise. I don’t mind the concept that these abilities are not innate in the original habitants of the The City but gained because the Serafim crossbreed with them, it adds another complexity to this fantasy world.

Stella Gemmell has given each character their own distinct feel and quality and weaves there stories with precision. However, at times it is hard to see the purpose of each individual’s story arch, which at times feels like you may be missing some crucial piece of information, due I feel to the initial division of the character stories. In the end each piece is brought back together and the threads do make more of a whole. The concept behind the war with the ‘Blues’ and conscripting men and women into military service was interesting when you take into account the longevity of the Emperor. When you don’t measure time in years but eons what does the death of a few thousand or million men and women mean? It shows how removed from the world the Emperor is, if both men and women are made to fight how can there be children, how can the city progress and even self-servingly have his own needs met.

The first quarter for me was a little slow as Stella Gemmell outlined the different characters to the reader, but once this was accomplished the pace picked up. There is where I think the story needed flashbacks, which show how the main characters knew each other from their pasts and gives legitimacy to their future interactions. The separate stories for Bartellus and Fell with their cutaways to there own personal history, while necessary, distracted from the moment that character was in. I also expected that Emly and Elija, as the opening characters to the book would have had a more active role in the plot, but it felt to me while they had purpose but did not inhabit the front lines of the story. Stella’s portrayal of one of the female protagonist, Indaro was strong, relatable and likable, but I don’t think she got the page-time she deserved. Indaro played a pivotal role in the story but her narrative was always balanced, I felt with another characters interaction. I would have liked a more Indaro biased perspective.

The City concludes with “an ending”, but it can be read in such a way that there is more to tell. However, if there were not any further books for the series you could be content with its finale. I will be the first to admit that I picked up this story with my own reservations and preconception, but was very happy to have them changed. This is a great addition to the epic fantasy genre.


For even more reviews, author interviews and biographies, check out the site Fantasy Book Review.

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