City of Last Chances by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Adrian Tchaikovsky's City of Last Chances begins with a game of chaq. In the back room of the Anchorage inn, overlooking the Anchorwood in the city of Ilmar, now in its third year of occupation by the fascistic, autocratic Palleseen, sit a motley crew representing many of the city's dominant forces. Blackmane, a leader among the despised Allorwen minority, themselves refugees from a previous Palleseen conquest. Ivarn, an illustrious professor at the Gownhall, self-proclaimed keeper of the Ilmari cultural flame. Representatives of the city's three resistance factions: Vidsya for the Crows, the group representing the Armiger, the Ilmari aristocracy; Ruslav for the Vultures, the group run by the city's crime families; and Fleance for the Herons, the watermen who smuggle illegal items under the Pals' noses. At the same moment, a Palleseen officer, Ochelby, enters the wood—protected, as he thinks, from its beastly denizens by a powerful ward. It's around the time that this same ward, pilfered by Fleance, is added to the chaq pot that news of Ochelby's gruesome death arrives at the inn. In the hullabaloo, the ward disappears, and everyone around the table is a suspect.

I always enjoy Adrian Tchaikovsky's writing, but I don't tend to seek it out. Partly, this is simply an issue of time management, as Tchaikovsky is absurdly prolific. In the same year and a half in which he published City of Last Chances, he also produced the concluding volume of one science fiction trilogy (Children of Memory), the second and third volumes of another (Eyes of the Void, Lords of Uncreation), and two standalone fantasy novellas (Ogres, And Put Away Childish Things). But, perhaps because of this wide range of genres and series, I've also found myself struggling to define Tchaikovsky as a writer. There isn't an obvious hook that distinguishes his work beyond "it will probably be very good", and that's not quite enough to set him apart from the pack.

City of Last Chances suggests one possible hook. In the novel's opening chapter, before the fateful game of chaq gets going, we're introduced to Yasnic, the last, struggling priest of a god (or rather, God) who appears to him in physical form and demands not only worship, but comfort.

"It's cold," God said. "It's so cold." The divine presence was curled up on His shelf like an emaciated cat, and about the same size. He had shrunk since the night before, and perhaps that, too, was a blessing. Sometimes Yasnic could do with a little less God in his life, and here he was this morning, and God was smaller by at least a quarter. He gave thanks, his knee-jerk reaction ingrained from long years of good upbringing by Kosha, the previous priest of God. Back when Ilmar had been a more tolerant place, and old Kosha and Yasnic and God had lived in three rooms above a tanner's and had meat at least once a twelveday.

Ah, I said to myself. I would have picked up this book a lot sooner if only someone had told me that it was New Weird.

(A word on the New Weird, for those of you who weren't around in the early 2000s when it was the buzzword du jour, or who were a bit confused by the term even at the time. Urban fantasy (by which I mean fantasy that takes place in cities, not the commercial genre of the same name) tends to exist on a spectrum between the heroic mode—special people, secret societies, battles between good and evil—and the realistic one, in which considerations of politics and economics force characters into uncomfortable situations and morally grey decisions. All fantasy these days offers some combination of these two modes, but New Weird's distinction is in how it layers them, one over the other. 

Characters in New Weird stories tend to think of themselves as modern people, often seeking to systematize the magical and uncanny in their world—the main character of Perdido Street Station, the launching point for the New Weird, is a scientist trying to use magic to produce an unlimited energy source—and often more concerned with mundane matters such as evading the police or negotiating with the local crimelord. But no matter how rationally they seek to approach their world, it always ends up wrongfooting them, whether that's the eruption of the uncanny where it had supposedly been under control, or its refusal to behave in predictable, storybook ways—when the heroine of The Scar tries to appease a race of angry fantasy creatures by returning an artifact that was stolen from them, they laugh; what they're actually after, they explain, are stolen trade secrets. If there's one word that sums up the New Weird, it is "unease"—not just with the presence of the fantastical in a supposedly rational world, but with how rationality expresses itself. Mundane society in New Weird novels is often predatory in its own right, the government repressive, the bureaucracy Kafkaesque. And now, back to the novel.)

The crisis that kicks off from Ochelby's death and the ward's disappearance sends the novel's characters careening into each other like billiard balls, accumulating energy at each impact. Blackmane is pressured by Hegelsy, the Palleseen officer in charge of investigating the theft, and in a fit of pique points the finger at Ivarn, who has been shaking him down for years. Ivarn's student Lemya is outraged by his arrest, certain that this mistreatment of a hero of the city will not pass quietly. She turns to Ruslav, and to fellow student Shantrov, a junior member of Vidsya's family, both of whom activate their respective resistance groups. The first New Weird choice made by City of Last Chances—the first way in which it courts our unease—is its refusal of a protagonist. The novel is told in a series of tight third person chapters, switching between these characters' points of view and many others. It's more than a hundred pages before we repeat a perspective, and even after that, new ones continue to appear. None of them emerge as our hero—some we even root strongly against, though all are granted a degree of sympathy and pathos.

What emerges instead is a sense of the forces driving the city, and the way they are beginning to converge. The Crows are planning a revolution, but not too soon, concerned that if the Pals' overthrow happens today, it'll be the underclasses that get the credit. The lecturers in the Gownhall extol the glory of Ilmar's culture, but in a way that subtly persuades their students that the best thing they can do to preserve it is to stay in their lecture halls rather than take to the streets. When Ivarn's arrest spurs a student uprising, they are dismayed, agreeing to lead it only because the alternative is to be left behind. The Vultures are constantly teetering between criminality and resistance, often preferring to rob the Palleseen (or anyone else left vulnerable by their distraction) than strike a genuine blow against them. And then there are individuals caught in the crossfire—Blackmane, who knows that no matter who wins the battle for Ilmar, the Allorwen will remain oppressed and mistrusted; Yasnic, who finally reveals his god's awesome power only to become a pawn for several of the city's factions.

Along the way, we get a growing sense of how Palleseen-occupied Ilmar functions. It is, by the standards of such things, a relatively benign takeover—the Pals' ultimate goal is to unite the entire world in uniform "perfection", but their methods of achieving this tend to take the long view. Replace a calendar here, suppress a language there, and in a generation or two no one will remember anything different (several of the most odious, true believer Pal officers reminisce about grandparents who secretly still adhered to the old ways before being carted off by the secret police). In the meantime, the local religion gets to keep functioning (because they've been instrumental in rounding up and eliminating smaller sects, and their creed preaches obedience and acquiescence to worldly powers); the Gownhall remains open (because its stores of knowledge are useful for tracking down magical artifacts); and the existing sectarian conflicts—for example against the Allorwen—have been stoked. So who cares if jack-booted thugs are patrolling the streets, and the occasional rabble-rouser gets picked up and disappeared?

The ward's theft throws this equilibrium into disarray, threatening to plunge the city into violent unrest, but also offering the first meaningful challenge to the Pals' control over it. So far, everything I've described is par for the course for a modern fantasy novel—a complex, multifaceted political situation with few clear-cut heroes. But in a New Weird story, the uncanny never takes a back seat to the forces of economics and realpolitik. 

Another reason for the Pals' relatively laissez faire approach to the occupation, and also the thing that makes Ilmar special, is the Anchorwood, which sometimes looks like an ordinary stand of trees, and is sometimes a pathway to other worlds, patrolled by the mysterious Indwellers. The Pals power their empire through magic—by dismantling and rendering down magical artifacts, creatures, and people to power their weapons—and so their interest in Ilmar is not only its own rich history of magic, but the additional opportunities for conquest and consumption it offers. In doing so, however, they call down the Indwellers' wrath, an enmity they can barely comprehend, much less organize against. Nor is this the only place in Ilmar where weirdness and rationality are at war. In order to gain leverage with which to secure Ivarn's freedom, Lemya arranges an expedition into the Reproach, a zone of madness in the quarter that used to house the city's ruling family, who intermarried with the Indwellers, and where visitors now find their minds overwritten by ghosts, forced to reenact an ancient courtly drama.

One of the core questions of the New Weird is that of narrative—can you impose rationality, or madness, by telling the world different stories about itself? So many of the forces in City of Last Chances are seeking to write their own narrative over reality. The Palleseen, of course, are trying to make the world their palimpsest, rubbing out what came before, and using it to power their own, ever-expanding story. But even those factions who claim to stand for freedom are blinded by story. The members of the various resistance factions are constantly asking themselves whether this is "it", the spark that will ignite a revolution, the one injustice that will outrage enough of the city to rise up together and overthrow the Pals. But in the city's slums, Father Orvechin, the leader of the factory worker "Siblingries", is bitterly dismissive of this notion. Revolution, to him, can only come from his people. 

Yes, there was a lot of paper in the Gownhall, but that didn't mean anyone would light the flame there. The great and roaring flame that they spoke of behind closed doors at Siblingry meetings. The moment of overthrow, when the Pals and their soldiers and officials would look out of their windows and see the streets crammed with working men and women, hammers and torches and upraised fists. And then the Armigers too, the owners and exploiters with their long end of the scales, meaning Orvechin and his people had to pull with all their weight to get the balance shifted even an inch. It couldn't have its seeds in a pack of privileged students refusing to read another overlong word because their favorite pontificator was spending a few nights behind bars.

For a lot of characters in the novel, their journey involves discovering the limits of narrative. Ruslav and Shantrov both dream of chivalry—Ruslav, of being a knight, paying courtly love to a succession of beautiful ladies while striking a heroic pose against oppression; Shantrov, of living up to his ancestry, leading the city from atop a white charger. Both end up confronted by the limitations of these fantasies—by their own inability to live up to these heroic figures, as well as the more prosaic uses to which the leaders of their respective factions, the Vultures and the Crows, plan to put them. And yet there is true chivalry in Ilmar, though the way to achieve it is to give oneself to the Reproach and play a role in its eternal drama, losing your own identity in the process. Blackmane, meanwhile, muses that while in his home of Allor the practice of raising demons for sexual congress was an act of religious communion, in Ilmar it has been fitted into a new story, made prurient and commercial in the brothels with which the city's denizens associate all Allorwen—while, in the slums, other demons are raised to power the factories, another corruption of what was once a meaningful, personal exchange.

There are other figures in the novel, however, who seem to have emerged fully-formed from another type of fantasy entirely. Hellgram, the bouncer at the Anchorage, is a warrior from another world, on an obsessive quest to find his lost wife. Jem, the barmaid, is this world's equivalent of an elf, born in a city where everything is beautiful and orderly and serene, and sent away because part of the method of securing that serenity is tight population control. City of Last Chances is a novel that never lets you reach a conclusion about the relationship between the wondrous and the mundane in its world. On the one hand you have creatures like Yasnic's god, capable of miraculous acts of healing, but consumed by an entirely ordinary brand of depression after centuries of wielding that power and then watching humans use their new lives to cause yet more injury and suffering. But just as you think that this novel can be fully comprehended through the tools of psychological realism, there emerges some element of pure strangeness, such as the Palleseen governor, who at the moment of taking over the city was struck down by a curse that causes noxious, suppurating sores to appear on his body, and whose every effort to discover a cure for this affliction, either scientific or magical, has failed.

A similar duality describes the novel's conclusion. On the one hand, it is a perfect Rube Goldberg machine in which every character's path converges in exactly the right way to find both the correct resolution to their own story, and their necessary role in the grand tapestry into which they're all woven (the solution to Hellgram's quest, in particular, is shocking, entirely logical, and extremely gross). At the same time, however, it is a supremely messy ending. The promised uprising erupts, and then collapses into uncertainty, neither a definitive blow against the occupation, nor a complete routing of the resistance. Nearly every major power in the city is dealt a massive blow, but the exact way in which it will reform or be replaced remains unclear. Some important characters choose to leave the city, while others reaffirm their commitment to it, and others still find a new role, and sense of purpose, that they had never expected. Ilmar isn't saved, but neither is it lost.

In another novel, this would feel like obvious sequel bait, and certainly Tchaikovsky has form in this department. But—without wishing to guess at his intentions—that doesn't feel like the sort of story City of Last Chances is telling. This novel, it seems to me, lives in that zone of uncertainty. What it's trying to show us isn't the definitive journey of this city from one state to another, but the reasons why it will never be only one thing. The same New Weird-ian sense of unease that makes it impossible for the Palleseen to fully comprehend and consume Ilmar also means that it will never be fully saved from them. Perhaps the only real hope is that, like every other force that has sought to put its stamp on the city, it will incorporate them into its makeup, and still endure as its own, entirely unique thing. The novel thus ends very much as it began, with a game of chaq at the Anchorage, and with it the promise that even if we won't get to hear them, Ilmar's stories will continue.


Murc said…
My understanding based on some of the marketing copy and interviews I've seen is that Tchaikovsky is planning to do this Bas-Lag style; there's gonna be one or more stories in the setting, but they won't be direct sequels, in the same way that The Scar isn't really a sequel to Perdido Street Station.

Tchaikovsky isn't just prolific, he's a hell of a chameleon, isn't he? His "Children" trilogy is written in the style of classical sci-fi of its sort; it has structure and form and use of language that is very Arthur C. Clarke, very traditional sci-fi. His fantasy novels are the same way. And now he's doing New Weird?

Not a lot of authors can do that. They establish a voice and a genre and for the most part that tends to really cling to them. I've read a number of genre authors who started off in fantasy or sci-fi and moved to the other (or to Cosmic Horror) and their books in their "new" genre have the "old" genre clinging all over it. (Sometimes to its advantage!) Tchaikovsky is sometimes like picking up a completely new author. It's like the literary equivalent of watching Philip Seymour Hoffman or Gary Oldman.
Yup, confirmed by the author himself:

Which feels like exactly the right call for this fictional universe. There's clearly so much more to explore (Jem's city! Hellgram's origins!), and it would be impossible to give Ilmar an ending that would satisfy as much as this book's non-ending does.

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