Friday, May 15, 2015

Cities and Thrones - Carrie Patel

Cities and Thrones is the second in Carrie Patel’s Recolleta series, the first of which I reviewed earlier in the year, here.

Cities and Thrones has a lot to live up to. Its predecessor was Carrie Patel’s debut, which put together several elements – a claustrophobic underground city, several conspiracy-theory-worthy dark secrets, a string of brutal murders – and spun them in unexpected directions. The sequel strives to provide the same originality, whilst telling a different –if complementary – story. For the most part, it succeeds.

The setting was always one of the strengths of the first book – Patel crafted a city which was ruled by a fear of chaos, an almost pathological need for everything to be done within the existing system. A confined, limited environment which teetered on the edge of stagnation.

Recolleta in this second book is just as effectively drawn, but the picture is somewhat different. L iesl Malone, one of the protagonists from the first book, is now the chief of police for Recolleta. The city is now scarred by the catastrophic events near the close of the first book. Law enforcement has been decimated, and doesn’t have the manpower to maintain order across the city. Areas are going dark. Standard utilities are failing. The social order has been overturned – the rich brought low by the poorer sections of society, who are now looking to grow into their new found freedoms. Supply lines from the farming communities are stretched at best, tenuous at worst. The government, which Malone now sits in, is populated by people largely trying their best to deal with intractable systemic problems, and still keep their own heads above water. The demagogue who led the revolution is becoming increasingly paranoid and autocratic. Overall, the whole thing is a spark, just waiting for the match.

What Patel is giving the characters (and the reader) in this changed portrayal is an understanding of consequences. The old Recolleta is dead, but the birth pains of the new one aren’t especially pretty. Still, from a setting point of view, Patel has spun together a vivid world, one which is different enough from our own to be fascinating, and similar enough that we empathise with the characters as they struggle within it.

The reader is also given a broader view of the setting this time, taken out of Recolleta and into the surrounding countryside, the largely unmentioned Outside. We’re taken here along with Jane, one of the characters from the first book, now on the run after her part in events in the first book. It’s interesting to get a view of the farming communities that feed the urban hub, to see how and why they operate as they do – and Patel manages to cast them effectively, with a broader, but paradoxically more prosaic view of things.

We’re also introduced to other cities; these were briefly alluded to in The Buried Life, but have a stronger part to play in this sequel. They’re still largely an enigma, but at least one is further fleshed out; in doing so, it’s almost in direct contrast to Recolleta, thematically – it feels ordered, spacious, but also controlled. It’s also a haven of the nest-of-vipers politicking which the Recolletans can’t now really afford; through Jane, the reader starts with a fly-on-the-wall view of the machinations of the other urban areas as they adjust to the new Recolleta – but Jane, like Malone, quickly finds herself in over her head, to say the least.

Along with Malone and Jane there are a few other returning characters, but those are the two that get star billing. They’ve both shifted somewhat since the first book, a sign of the way in which the civic upheaval has created change; Malone is still austere, but seems to have lost at least someof the cloaked spark of joy that she carried in the first book; on the other hand, she’s grasped the nettle of responsibility, and the way in which she becomes accustomed to that, and then the way in which she directs it to achieve the ends which she desires is one of the key arcs of the book – as is her search to define exactly it is she wants to do with the power that came along with that responsibility. It would have been nice to have explored this dichotomy in a bit more depth, but the way in which it was wrapped into the narrative made the character arc work as part of the whole – and it’s absolutely intriguing as it is.

Jane’s arc is different; her character shows us a view from the lower decks, as it were. Malone deals in politics, in broader sweeps, but it’s Jane whom we track as she attempts to make a name and a role for herself in a new city, as she struggles to earn the trust of a variety of new employers, and as she decides how far she is willing to go to acquire peace and security. Jane is the everyman of the story, but she’s not just that – she feels more reactive than Malone, but her determination to make her own choices, to wring herself a new reality out of the catastrophic convuslions of Recolleta – those ring true, as does her fear, her willingness to compromise to keep what she has managed to create for herself.

Patel has made a pair of intriguing protagonists, ones whom it’s a joy to follow along with. I laughed at their jokes, was emotionally wrung out by Jane’s flight from Recolleta. Understood the cold calculus of Malone’s efforts to prevent further disruption. Some of the decisions were perhaps a little weak, more in service to the plot, and some of the discoveries made seemed a little convenient, but overall, they both felt exceptionally human, which is all one can ask for.

The plot rattles along nicely as well. It’s great to see a series which doesn’t just end with a triumphal victory. Instead we spent the majority of this book looking at what happens next. Social  eruptions. Political instability. External politics. Vultures circling, and the previously weak discovering they have unexpected means of leverage. Patel explores what happens after other series ends, and does so in an uncompromising manner which carries a lot of truth along with it. It’s a grim read some of the time, but it’s unflinchingly human in the horrors and delights that are conveyed.

Overall, Cities and Thrones has taken the next steps required after The Buried Life. The setting is still gorgeously drab, but we’ve got a broader view of it now. The characters are wonderfully human, and evolving in an understandable, believable, organic fashion. The plot is interesting enough, and kept me turning the pages;  there’s enough action, scheming and mystery for anyone. If you’ve not read the first book in the series, you’d want to do that before moving to this one. If you have, I encourage you to give this sequel a try – it’s thoroughly enjoyable.

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