City on Fire, by Walter Jon Williams

city-on-fire-by-walter-jon-williams coverGenre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Morrow William and Co
Published: 1996
Reviewer Rating: three and a half stars
Book Review by David Hart

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This is the sequel to Metropolitan; indeed the action starts when Metropolitan left off, in either a far-future Earth or more likely an alternate one.

Constantine has become one of the rulers of the city he helped capture, and hopes to introduce the political ideas (democratic, efficient, uncorrupt government) that are supposed to drive him. When Aiah joins him, she is put in charge of the government control of Plasm, the “magical” form of energy that can be used for fighting, healing, genetic modification, telepathy; anything in fact that the plot requires. For a while all is well, but then there is political infighting within the administration, and there are religious problems, and their external enemies counterattack. Despite this progress is made on improving plasm generation. And what about the intriguing Dreaming Sisters, a sort of religious order? How do they use so little plasm, but to such good effect?

This book shares one of the drawbacks of its predecessor: the story is related in the third person, present tense, but almost invariably it follows only Aiah, thus leaving the reader feeling somewhat insulated from other events and people; and each chapter consists of many “chapterlets”, some only 2 pages long, so making it more difficult for the reader to engage with the story. It also suffers in that the main story line revolves around politics and the manipulations of politicians, which I found rather too mainstream for my taste. However City on Fire has two virtues that raise it above the rather mediocre Metropolitan. The first of these is the character of Aiah. Originally shallow, a pawn promoted to a minor piece by chance and the whim of Constantine, during this book she gains depth, and her increasing insight into the people and events surrounding her help retain the reader’s interest in the story. By the end of the book, she is making decisions that affect Constantine rather than the other way round. The second is that there is more emphasis on the origin and use of plasm, with two substantial subplots; and even the mysterious Shield that surrounds the world may have a chink in its Armour. As a result, though hardly a “Couldn’t put down”, this book is not tedious like its predecessor.

Although City on Fire could be read alone, it is certainly a sequel to Metropolitan, and has the feel of the middle part of a trilogy: we now know more of what makes the world tick, but not enough to be satisfying. According to Walter Jon Williams’ website a third book is a possibility. If it appears I shall certainly read it, but newcomers might choose to defer starting the series until then (try “Aristoi” instead). However if you enjoy rather slow-moving SF, such as Modesitt’s Recluse series, you could do far worse than read this book.

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