For the last couple years, I’ve regularly seen The Essalayien Series by Michelle West (an alias of Michelle Sagara, author of The Chronicles of Elantra) cited as an underrated gem for those who like character-driven epic fantasy. As I very much enjoy character-driven epic fantasy, I’ve had this one on my list for quite a while, and when a likely gap opened up between library holds, I went ahead and gave The Hidden City a read.
The Hidden City leads with Rath, a loner with an aristocratic past and an unsavory business dealing in the procurement and sale of antiquities. But something about his encounter with ten year-old orphan Jewell “Jay” Markess spurs him to take her under his wing and teach her how to survive. And when Jay’s premonitions begin to reveal evil afoot in their city and other orphans threatened, Rath finds himself putting his caution and privacy aside to protect the city’s most vulnerable.
I absolutely adore the “grumpy old man reluctantly saves the day” trope, and interplay between Rath and Jay made for a perfect start to this one. Add the tension produced by the dark premonitions, and I was hooked through the first half of the novel, even despite some narrative foibles that would ordinarily bother me—internal monologues that overexplain, a few too-modern turns of phrase, minor continuity errors.
But the second half slows things down, as Rath and Jay work through the fallout of the midway climax, building relationships with new people and exploring just how deep the threats go. And without the immediacy of the premonitions driving the plot forward, the detailed descriptions and unnecessary explanations become more difficult to overlook. I rarely see a discussion of The Essalayien Series that doesn’t mention its slow pace and character focus, but the second half of The Hidden City shows that these are not just two sides of the same coin—West spends a lot of time developing relationship between the characters, but she unnecessarily slows the pace by taking time to explain things that the reader should already know.
Overall, some strong character work, excellent narrative tension in the first half, and use of one of my favorite tropes makes The Hidden City a plenty enjoyable read. But it isn’t without flaws, and it demands a level of patience that will frustrate certain readers. I’ve heard that you can lose yourself in West’s Essalayien universe, and I’m intrigued enough to take a look at the next book to see how she builds on the opening. But pacing concerns are enough to prevent it from being an auto-buy.
Recommended if you like: grumpy old men saving the day, slow pace and character focus.
Content warning: multiple, plot-relevant (but offscreen) instances of child rape.
Can I use it for Bingo? It is on the A-Z Genre Guide (hard mode), and also fits the 500+ Page, Backlist, and Found Family squares.
Overall rating: 14 of Tar Vol’s 20. Four stars on Goodreads.