Fantasy in Review: ‘The Drowning City’ by Amanda Downum
I was desperate for something to read and I was browsing the shelves of my local Barnes and Noble when I came across this book. I decided to give it a shot for a few reasons. The book said it was part of the Necromancer Chronicles. I like Necromancers. I like protagonist necromancers quite a bit actually. It also had a blurb from Jacqueline Carey. I’ve only read one book of Carey’s, but it was good and people I know like her quite a bit, so this blurb sold me a little more on picking up this book. The last factor that lead to me picking up the book was the setting. It sounded good and it also wasn’t a setting that was obviously based on Western Culture. It seemed like a mishmash of Asian, Middle Eastern and Western Cultures.
The book centers around Isyllt Iskaldur, who is a secret agent and forensic necromancer of her home country, the name of which I honestly never really figured out. It could be Selafain, but that could also be the name of her people. I’m pretty sure the capital of wherever it is she’s from is called Eresin thought. Anyway, I digress. Isyllt along with her two bodyguards has been sent to Symir, the Drowning City in question, to instigate a revolution to keep the rulers of Assar (the country that controls Symir) from attempting to add Selafain (or maybe the Selafain?) to their conquests.
Magic: This may come as no surprise to anyone, but my favorite part of this book was the magic. The interesting take on necromancy (the ability to harness the coldness of death and use it as a power is pretty interesting) really ended up driving my interest in this book. Overall I tend to find that characters with necromantic powers are under-used and under-appreciated and I’m all for any decent book that has a lead necromancer character (for other reading with necromancers check out some of my favorites—the Johannes Cabal books by Jonathon L. Howard and the Abhorsen Trilogy by Garth Nix).
I also really liked Zhirin’s powers. The fact that she doesn’t have power over all water or bodies or water or moisture, etc., but only those of or related to the Mir River. It’s an interesting idea to make it that specific. Also the way this plays into the end of the book was an interesting and unique idea that piqued my interest.
Ghosts: The ghosts were probably my favorite part of the book. It seemed like they were well thought out and well executed. The White Hand, a ghost guerrilla resistance group, was an interesting touch and really helped make me invested in the plot. I liked them and their methods and wanted to know more about the ghosts and their workings. I really liked the idea that the ghosts go mad and possess people and the idea of “singing on” the ghosts as a means of smoothing their passage from the world of the living.
Asheris: Asheris was probably my favorite character in this book. His magic was interesting. I think to a certain extent he had a better, more fleshed out back story and plot than the main character, and he had a good resolution.
Magic: Unfortunately, while the power over cold was cool and the ability to see the last moments of life through a corpse’s eyes was interesting, at no point did I really really feel like Isyllt was a necromancer. I know it says she’s a necromancer and I know she has some sort of necromantic powers, but like a lot of things in this book it just never pans out for me. The potential is there, but aside from having power over cold (which lots of characters can have) she just doesn’t do much necromancer stuff, let alone forensic necromancer stuff, in this first book. It’s just not really fleshed out what a forensic necromancer can do and should be doing. Granted, its only the first book so there should be a lot of room to grow.
Once again I don’t think Zhirin’s powers were well thought out. Or maybe the author actually has all the answers and just didn’t bother to explain everything. I’m not sure why Zhirin’s powers are sometimes activated by her combing her hair.
The Main Character: Overall, I wasn’t wowed by Isyllt Iskaldur. I felt like there was a lot of potential with Isylt Iskaldur, but she was pulled in so many directions that she never really firmly established herself in any of them. Maybe it’s because I really like all of the individual aspects of her character (necromancer/spy/mage) that I wasn’t particularly satisfied by how Isylt was portrayed in any of those aspects. For a character billed as a “Top Agent” she doesn’t do much in the way of spying. Other characters mostly do her work for her, and what spying she does is kind of inept. It mostly felt like she was blundering around in the dark while wildly flailing, hoping to hit on a secret plot or some sedition she could exploit. Maybe it’s because I like spies so much that I have a set idea in my head of how they should be, but I don’t think so.
The Setting: I really wanted to like the setting. The author says its based in part on New Orleans. I love New Orleans. Why wouldn’t I like that? Well, the problem for me was that the New Orleans of The Drowning City never became a character the way other fantasy cities have for me. I’m a city dweller to my core. I love them and I love being in cities, so it shouldn’t take much to make me like your fantasy city. But this one just didn’t resonate with me. It could have been the division of the setting between the city and the jungle that caused neither setting to properly stand out. By the end of the book I had really only learned a few things about the city: it’s crowded (its a fantasy city—it would be more unusual for it not to be crowded), there’s some vague backstory about a river that runs through the city, and that the city is near a volcano and some jungle.
The Final Word:
I’m not sure I’m happy I read this book. I wanted a lot from The Drowning City, and I think it promised a fair amount but failed to deliver most of it. I thought it had a lot of unfulfilled potential. It’s possible that the writing and plotting will just get better and better as the series progresses, but this first installment had a such mediocre impact on me that I’ll have to be hard pressed to find something to read before I pick up the next book in the series.
I’d probably give this a 2 out of 5. There’s probably something else out there that you could be reading instead of this book.