A City Dreaming is a modern fantasy novel by Daniel Polansky. I’ve previously said very positive things about his epic fantasy “Empty Throne” duology, here and here. With that in mind, I went into A City Dreaming with high expectations.
Polansky writes smoothly dark prose with a kick to it, like a really good Irish coffee. That style is very much in evidence here, as we follow the life of “M.” M is a bit of a drifter, an individual who can’t seem to settle down, and, in fact, doesn’t want to. He’s a man who appreciates the finer things in life – good drinks, better drugs, comfortable beds, and a bar where they know when to talk and when to leave you alone. He’s a relentless pursuer of women, seemingly with few complaints on either side. He’s a rampant egotist. Also, and perhaps I should have mentioned this before, he can do magic. Not the kind with the card tricks and rabbits either, but the kind where if someone upsets him, that person may find themselves dropped out of existence entirely. M. is an individual allergic to responsibility. He’s happy with his lot, and really only wants to be left alone, to enjoy his life of wine, women and song in relative peace. He’s a delightfully insightful narrator – sarcastic, complex, often morally ambiguous. His self-absorption can seem limitless, but he has a core of loyalty to friends, which seems to get him into, and out of, rather a lot of trouble.
There are hard edges poking through the seams of M.’s rather nice suit. He’s a man not looking for trouble, but willing to use guile, flim-flam and the occasional bit of magical force to finish trouble before it starts. He is not, in a lot of ways, a nice man. But being unapologetic about it, he’s an extremely entertaining, thoroughly readable, and extremely human one. I’d quite happily share a drink with him, but perhaps not trust him to watch my house. As a protagonist, he’s in the noir mould, a fast thinking, fast talking investigator, drawn to trouble, with fast friends, unreliable acquaintances, and some truly lethal enemies. Polansky shows us them all through M.’s lens – the startlingly violent, thoroughly addled Boy, Stockdale, the charming British throwback to Empire, with a darkness behind his eyes, the steely hippie Red Queen and the icy financier the White Queen. The book is scattered with these, and other members of a memorable cast – and if we don’t see enough of them, we see enough that we’d like to see more.
The text is formed in chapter long vignettes, exploring M.’s largely accidental adventures in New York. In part, this is a paean to the city, to the sheer thriving, squabbling, brawling, loving, hating, fighting, murdering, lusting, loving mass of it. There’s a sense of place, even as we’re shifted, from penthouse apartments to dive bars, to extra-dimensional tears, to that one loft party you might have gone to under the influence before waking up a week later on a Norwegian fishing trawler. The city lives, breathes and heaves around M. , an organic gestalt, never sure of what it is or may become – and with edges that fade into the liminal. There are subway trains going into the depths of hell, to stations where any destination in time and space is available…or just to Tribeca. Goblin carnivals in old warehouse districts suggesting a cornucopia of delights – for the shopper careful enough to leave before the sun goes down. It’s a grimy, greasy, living city – and the supernatural slots so neatly amongst the rest that if you happen to visit, you may start seeing oddities out of the corner of your eye.
The vignette sized plots took a bit of adjusting to, initially, but it’s a solid stylistic decision. These snapshots of M.’s existence draw us into his world, and each has the sort of expert pacing that left me moving quickly on to the next page. In some cases, it was to see if a brawl would end well. In others, to see if there was life, love and humanity on the other side. There’s something here for everyone, I think. The dialogue is snappy, often with a sarcastic weariness which moved me swiftly to laughter. But it also feels genuine, the rhythms between M. and his friends those of practises speakers, their personalities expressed in every aside or idiom. Their mis-adventures are plausible, if definitely deeply strange, and over the course of the text, the vignettes all build into a larger gestalt, something a bit special. There are moments of danger and tension, where I sat with heart in mouth – and others, of betrayal, of mistakes, of loyalty, which moved me almost to tears.
Not to categorise, but I suppose it’s urban fantasy, but expect subtlety, darkness, sparkles of hope and a feeling of humanity and their stakes in the world – and no glittering vampires. M. is, in many ways, not a nice man. He’s melancholy, aloof, and downright dangerous. But his escapades were an absolutely stunning read, one which asks interesting questions about people, who we are, why we do what we do – and knows when to break that up with a sharp remark or, perhaps, a fireball. This is noir fantasy, this is something you wouldn’t take home to meet your mother – and it’s compellingly, truthfully, wonderfully written stuff. Definitely give it a try, if you’re looking for something new.