Sunday, 24 October 2010

A Tale of Too Many Cities

This is not a comment on the excellent City of Thieves, reviewed below, but a long wail about why so many books are called "City of ...." I have perpetrated five such books myself in the Stravaganza sequence with another to come (City of Swords) in 2012.

But it's not just me. Cassandra Clare has written four so far: City of Bones, City of Ashes, City of Glass and City of Fallen Angels (I'm not sure about the order since I stopped after the first one - Bones, I think.) But John Berendt wrote City of Falling Angels about Venice and Paul Auster's New York trilogy also features a City of Glass.

Confusing, isn't it?

St Augustine wrote City of God so maybe we should blame him.

Anyway, City of Thieves is a very good book and a very good sequel to Castle of Shadows. (It has an equally gorgeous cover, which doesn't reproduce adequately, with gold foil and shiny black birds in full flight against the darkening blue sky.)

At the end of Castle of Shadows, Charlie (Charlotte) has lost her father, found her mother and become Queen of Quale. And she's still only twelve. The new book turns the spotlight more intensely on to Tobias Petch (Toby), Charlie's friend and fellow-adventurer. The two of them thought they had conquered Alistair Windlass, who killed the king, Charlie's father, but turned out to be Toby's own parent.

City of Thieves opens with Toby looking forward to seeing Windlass hanged. And this is just one example of Renner's clear-eyed and uncompromising approach to family. Toby hates his biological father, was horribly beaten by his late stepfather and is horrified by belonging to the Petch family who are all professional thieves. Charlie finds it hard to forgive her mother for her desertion in the first instalment.

But worse complications are to come. Toby's mother helps his father to escape the noose and just when Toby thinks he is going to be able to track the villain down, he is captured by his step-uncle, Zebediah Petch, who wants him to become his apprentice lock-picker, safe-breaker and general burglar.

The sections in which Toby is trained and his will subdued through beatings and other forms of bullying is horribly convincing. And the character of Alistair Windlass - who inevitably comes back into the story - is endlessly fascinating. In Windlass, Renner has created that rare thing in a book for children: a truly morally ambiguous character. He has killed more than once and is limitlessly ambitious (he used to be the country's Prime Minister, after all). But he has some of the qualities of timeless heroes too.

He is as fastidious about his appearance and dress as Diana Wynne Jones' Chrestomanci, as clever in anticipating others' actions as Sherlock Holmes and as ruthless as Che Guevara.

Charlie's mother (the oddly-titled "Dowager Queen" - should be Queen Mother, surely?) is a scientist, a pretty hotshot physicist and chemist, who has accidentally invented a lethal weapon. And it's the plans for that which form the McGuffin of this story - the thing that Windlass must gain at all costs.

But Toby is a bit of a McGuffin himself, wanted equally by Windlass, Zebediah and by Charlie and his other friends at the castle. It's a thrilling read, that keeps you on the edge of your seat till the end but is also full of unexpected aper├žus about the nature of monarchy, weapons of mass destruction and political bargaining.

My only beef is that, having put her readers through the wringer, Renner leaves us wanting and waiting for volume three. Please, Orchard Books, tell us it's coming soon! You can even call it City of Something, as long as I can find out what happens to Toby, Charlie and the rest before too long.


Ellen Renner said...

Oh heavens, Book Maven, what a glorious review! I can only say a heartfelt thank you for not only having read the book (reading time is a precious and rare thing to a writer), but for grasping so clearly my intentions and hopes as I wrote it. You've reassured me that I must have succeeded to some extent. I will write the third, no matter what. But I promise not to call it 'City of Something'!
(ps: you're quite right about queen mother; only I kept seeing Elizabeth II's mum...)

Mary Hoffman said...

Yes, I thought that would be a problem for those of us who remember the gin-swilling old QE the QM! But no-one of the target age would have those associations, I think. Didn't she die in 1999 or so?

Yes, you MUST write the third, no question. I want to know about the twists to come.

Rhiannon said...

What about China Meiville? The City and the City!

Anonymous said...

I have also been confused by all the cities. My gut feeling when in bookshops is that it's 'another Mary Hoffman' which I've somehow missed, but I know better now.

Mary Hoffman said...

I was going mention that but forgot! Have jsut started it. Will report back.

michelle lovric said...

Maybe 'City' is just one of those dynamic words - a whole throbbing world in two syllables. No-ones going to write 'Teacup of Doom' or 'Eyebath of Evil'. I hope.

Unknown said...

*sniggers* Oh maybe I'll write the Teacup of Doom for NaNo!


Sorry about the lack of linkage on my Worldbuilding series, I've fixed that now!


Katherine Roberts said...

Wouldn't have quite the same ring if you called it "Village of Thieves", would it? To me, that suggests hobbitlike creatures going out to do a bit of gentle scrumping...

Ellen, you started with a castle and moved straight on to a city, so I guess the third book will be have to be world-of or planet-of, at least?

Ellen Renner said...

Hi Katherine,
Ah, you spotted it. The third book spreads out to the continent: much takes place in the heart of the evil empire itself: Esceania.