This book is like a tornado, dragging its readers along for a spinning, whirlwind tour of the City Unspoken, a realm where the Dying go to Die their final Death. For when you die, you re-awaken on another planet, in another universe, as yourself but in a slightly different body. The City Unspoken, created by the First People, has become one of the premier destinations for those who meet the criteria and have the desire for the oblivion provided by true Death. It is a seedy, chaotic, and violent city with a population of newly awakened, body-bound, undead, and fae inhabitants.
Cooper is special. A young human from Earth, he is snatched from his life and taken to the City Unspoken for some unnamed purpose. He wakes to two individuals – Sesstri, warrior and scholar, and her partner, Asher, a grey-skinned mysterious human-like being – who are looking for a shaman. Hint: there’s an important bit about navels that comes into play here.
Cooper’s stay in the City Unspoken is filled with adventures, good and bad. As the supposed shaman (he believes he’s nobody special, and even a few others doubt his shamanic potential), he is wanted by both “good” (that’s Sesstri and Asher) and “evil”. Evil is a sociopathic Unseelie faerie princess, and young followers of undead demons slash wraiths.
As with all tornadoes, this one has picked up some seemingly random odds and ends. One of these is Purity Kloo. Years ago, the nobility of the City Unspoken were locked in the Dome (the central architectural structure in the City) by the City’s Prince. There, they are body-bound (they cannot Die). Purity is desperate to get out, and one of the few sane nobles left. Her adventures take place alongside Cooper’s. Another stray object picked up along the path: the mystery of Asher, who is older than he seems, and connected somehow to the fate of the City. Then, there is the mysterious redheaded woman who seems to be pulling ribbons to make things happen. The evil faerie princess, Lallowe Thyu, is concocting plots against her mother, the Unseelie queen, who has dire and complicated plans for the City Unspoken. And this is just a sample of all the bits and pieces that fit into the whole.
Somehow, though he doesn’t know how, Cooper lives in the eye of the tornado. He is the key to all the happenings, plots, and adventures. His personal growth and discovery make him a realistic, unheroic Chosen One. He’s also wry and funny, with a sense of humor that sticks with him throughout.
The plot drives the novel, in the sense that, buried as it is beneath all its complexities, it keeps one guessing. The action keeps to a brisk pace, that even as multi-layered as the plot is, it never gets boring. There are puzzling moments, harrowing moments, suspenseful moments.
The characters are fascinating, fully realized, and often mysterious. Only one seems to act out of character – a man reborn into a child’s body who seems to be as self-centered and sociopathic as they come, then has a sudden change of heart. Overall, they feel true and three-dimensional. The women are just as well-written as the men, in possession of their own agency and with their own complexities. There are even a few historical figures who will be recognizable.
The world-building really steals the show, however. The metaverse (all those realms or universes that people get sent to when they die), the idea that we die only to be reborn with our own memories again and again, in similar universes, is disturbing and fascinating at the same time. The City Unspoken comes to vibrant, if dark, life. The settings (metaverse and city) confuse and surprise, but never disappoint.
Add to all this a captivating prose, and you’ve got a winner. This book grabbed hold from the very first page and never let go. I felt carried along, unable to plot ahead and figure things out before they happened. At times, I wished the plot had been more clearly drawn, but in the end I think it works well. Bold, vibrant, and chaotic, it reminds me of a dark dream where the unreal is mixed in with the real and everything seems a bit sideways. The ending stuns. Will there be a sequel?
I highly recommend this book for anyone looking for a unique, fast-paced, and adventurous fantasy.
*Review copy via NetGalley
Disclaimer: I haven’t read this one yet, but I love Connie Willis’ Oxford time travel stories (The Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog). It’s received some awards, too! About a woman who investigates near-death experiences (what happens when people stop breathing and are brought back to life, for example?), it has a similar focus on life after death.
Have you read it? Did you like it?