Cities are fertile ground for writers of fantasy. Readers of this genre don’t have to think hard to come up with places like Terry Pratchett’s Ankh-Morpork or George RR Martin’s King’s Landing. While these cities come alive through their characters, some recent books have been deliberately casting the city itself as a character – books such as Sam Hawke’s City of Lies or Daniel Abraham’s Age of Ash. So much so that the term “urban fantasy” has gained traction as a subgenre of speculative fiction (although it is used more widely that). Prolific British science fiction and fantasy writer Adrian Tchaikovsky returns to the fantasy genre with one of these. City of Last Chances is as much, if not more, about the city of Ilmar and its peculiar history and character as it is about the numerous denizens who Tchaikovsky follows through the plot.
When City of Last Chances opens, Ilmar has been chafing under a years-long occupation by the Palleseen. The Palleseen claim to bring order and correct thinking to the places they conquer, but it is not long before the cracks become apparent in the Palleseen philosophy – none moreso than the early death of one of its high ranking officials after he loses a particular valuable protective item in a brothel. This death is the match that sparks the build up towards an uprising which seeks to free the city from its oppressors. Tchaikovsky charts this growing revolution through the various factions of the city – the underworld, the nobility, the student body, the refugees, the workers and a priest (the last of his profession in what is a mainly godless world) – but also from the point of view of various Palleseen movers and shakers.
City of Last Chances is a mosaic of a novel – constantly shifting perspective but keeping the action ticking along. But this is in the service of some ferocious, fascinating and detailed world building in which each of the factions has sub-factions and all are only working partly in support of or against each other and partly for their own ends. This is a fantasy novel so there are also lots of interestingly deployed magical elements – including the role of gods, the mysterious Anchorwood on the edge of the city and its even more mysterious protectors and the spirits of old Ilmar that haunt an area of the city called the Reproach.
While Tchaikovsky has been publishing more in science fiction more recently, he has plenty of fantasy in his extensive bibliography. Tchaikovsky returns to the genre with a bang in City of Last Chances an eldritch mix of epic and urban fantasy with some political undertones and full of fascinatingly grey characters in a city that lives and breathes off the page. And while it takes a little while to establish all of the players City of Last Chances builds to an expansive, chaotic, surprising and satisfying final act.