This story takes place in a thoroughly-populated Earth of the far future, quite likely in an alternate universe. The world is divided into many metropolises, which seem to be political states within a continuous world city, though this is not clearly spelt out. What is clear is that most of the surface is covered deeply with layers of buildings, new ones being built on top of old. In some curious way these buildings generate Plasm, an almost magical force that certain people, mages, can use for many purposes including healing, long life, transportation and ESP. Unsurprisingly governments control its collection and use, and charge for its supply. Also, for thousands of years the world has been surrounded by a mysterious, impenetrable Shield, said to have been created by the godlike Ascended to separate themselves from humanity beneath.
Aiah is a half-trained mage, working for the bureaucracy that tries to prevent plasm theft. When she happens to find a large, previously unknown plasm source, she chooses to give it to Constantine, a deposed Metropolitan of a different metropolis, hoping that he will use it to further his ambitions to create an efficient, democratic form of government. This brings her into his circle of colleagues (and lovers), and through her we watch as he invades a different metropolis.
I have read most of Walter Jon Williams' books, enjoying all bar the atrocious "Days of Atonement", so I was looking forward to seeing what he made of this intriguing world. I was disappointed for two main reasons. Firstly the writing. Williams has decided to use here a different style to his usual. Each chapter is subdivided into short sections, often only a page or two long. This is very detrimental to the flow of the narrative . And though he has written this book in the third person (present tense for some reason, as in "Aiah draws up a chair and opens her briefcase."), the viewpoint always follows Aiah, so that important action sometimes occurs off-stage. Secondly the plot almost ignores the interesting bits of the scenario. By the end of the book, we know no more than we did at the beginning about what makes this world tick. What is plasm, why do buildings generate it, why can only some people use it, what is the Shield all about? All these interesting questions are ignored. It's not that the book is Fantasy, where such things are allowed to exist without explanation; despite the labels Mage and Ascended with their magical overtones, the book reads as Science Fiction. The subjects just aren't addressed. Instead we are left watching not particularly fascinating characters as they meander slowly though the story. It feels like watching a chess game with a blocked position heading inexorably towards a draw.
As you can tell, I didn't much enjoy the book. So why read it? Well no doubt some people prefer quiet, unchallenging novels, and the second half did pick up a bit. However the main reason is that there is a sequel, City on Fire
, which is a noticeable improvement; and there is a hint that a third in the series may eventually appear. I hope so, as the scenario deserves much more exploration than it has so far received.