This review is based on an eARC (Advance Reading Copy) provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. City of Last Chances will be released on December 8, 2022.
Since getting back into sci-fi and fantasy a few years ago, Adrian Tchaikovsky has been one of my favorite discoveries. I’ve loved nearly everything I’ve read of his—including my favorite novellas of both this year and last year, plus the terrific Children of Time that seems the most popular entry point into his work—and his output is so high that there’s never a risk of running out of things to read. And so when I saw that he was diving back into fantasy with City of Last Chances, it was easy to put in an ARC request.
City of Last Chances takes place in the city of Ilmar, a secondary-world fantasy locale with a couple uncanny elements that go beyond run-of-the-mill magic: the Reproach that captures the minds of most who dare enter, and the Anchorwood that bends the rules of space to connect to far-distant outposts, but with great cost to those not sufficiently warded. But there’s much more than strange magic stirring up trouble in Ilmar—Palleseen occupiers are working to stamp out local religion and culture in their endless pursuit of perfection, and the occupation has made for strange bedfellows among traditionally unfriendly neighbors, with natives and foreigners, workers and nobles, thieves and academics finding themselves thrown together under the Palleseen thumb. City of Last Chances provides point-of-view characters from each of those groups, along with a few from the occupiers themselves, as it places the tiles for a revolutionary mosaic.
Usually, I find that having too many perspectives too quickly can make it hard to immerse in a new story, but despite having double-digit POV characters before returning to anyone previously introduced, there’s something about the writing style that makes it work. It’s written with a sort of detachment that tells the reader about the characters as pieces of an overall story, rather than really putting the reader into the minds of the characters—we see everyone’s motivations, but we’re not swept away by them, rather invited to consider each as from above. This makes for a less disorienting introduction, and the skill in storytelling makes it easy to keep reading to see what shape the mosaic will take.
And while all the pieces are there for an epic, City of Last Chances doesn’t progress the way you’d expect from a traditional epic fantasy. There is no main character, no hero destined to pull the bickering factions together and overcome the evil. Rather, there are a lot of groups working at cross-purposes for self-interested reasons. Those disparate goals and actions still lead inexorably to uprising, but there’s nothing neat about their path, and there’s certainly nothing neat about the resolution.
A clear strength of City of Last Chances is shining an unflattering light on all the pieces of rebellion that can’t quite manage to work together, but the main weakness is the other side of the same coin: being above it all makes it hard to be emotionally invested in it all. Reading City of Last Chances made me think back on all the previous Tchaikovsky works I’d read, and the way he so often makes the detached writing style work for him. It perfectly captured the ennui of a battered veteran of the time wars or the hollow depression of an anthropologist with an emotion-blocking device, it delivered the clinical tone needed to describe the evolution of a race of spiders, and here it allowed readers to navigate myriad factions without being overwhelmed. But though he’s made it work in so many contexts, there are some tasks for which it’s just not the right tool, and that became clear in the final chapters of City of Last Chances. It’s simply hard to invest in so many self-interested characters. And the few who are devout—the priest of a dying religion, a starry-eyed revolutionary undergraduate—invite pity more than empathy; the poor foolish souls just don’t have the foresight to disentangle themselves from hopeless causes. It’s a cynicism that’s apt for 90% of the novel, but feeling it through 100% just takes so much sting out of the climax.
Make no mistake—this is still an excellent novel. Readers who enjoy Tchaikovsky’s style and don’t mind a proliferation of POVs are bound to enjoy it. The prose is engaging and the social commentary is often perfectly on point. And the failure to bring everything together for an emotionally satisfying finish is as much feature as it is bug. While a few may play at it, there are no heroes in this book, and we should expect no heroism. In the cold light of day, the occupiers are morally bankrupt, and the resistance is too. That’s the story, and it’s well-told and interesting from start to finish—good enough that I’ve flirted with a five-star rating even without the emotional impact I’d have liked. But for all its praiseworthy elements, there’s just not quite enough soul to move it into the pantheon of favorites. I appreciated it, and I enjoyed it, but for all its many strengths, it didn’t fully capture my heart.
Recommended if you like: messy revolutions, mosaic novels.
Can I use it for Bingo? It’s the hardest of hard modes for Revolutions and Rebellions, and is hard mode for Standalone and Features Mental Health as well. If you’ll forgive the lack of central character, there are Antiheroes aplenty, and it’s an Indie Published book Released in 2022.
Overall rating: 16 of Tar Vol’s 20. Four stars on Goodreads.