The Plot Thickens: A review of City of Exiles by Alec Nevala-Lee
This is a high quality thriller. Like The Icon Thief it refuses to insult the intelligence of the reader, it has a likeable female protagonist, interesting settings, a good villain — always absolutely crucial — and is told economically. It plausibly conflates the real and imagined, and the research is good enough that there is no clear division between the two. A great book for a long airline flight, or just to keep you reading into the night. Good enough to earn the only accolade that counts — I have bought the next one, and when I’ve read it I’ll be sorry to see the last of, at the very least, Ilya and Wolfe. You should meet them.
The review ends here. The rest of this stuff consists of some rather more discursive comments.
A trilogy is distinct from three adventures happening to the same person, as for example Indiana Jones. It might be a single big story cut up for commercial or practical reasons, but to me ideally it is three stories that stand alone yet when combined tell a bigger story and lend each other resonance and depth. Be that right or wrong, the trilogy rule is:
“Small happy; big sad; bigger happy.”
- First part stands alone and has a happy ending but the people involved don’t realise that it is a very small victory in the scheme of things.
- The making of the second part is contingent upon success of the first part, and if it does get the go ahead the makers can usually assume there will be a third, so often has a downer ending and begins to reveal the size of the universe and the reach of the baddies.
- Part three is the ‘final’ victory of the goodies.
This only applies to trilogies conceived as such, but it is a sense also a description of a lot of three act dramas — single volumes rather than a set of three books.
In The Icon Thief we had a self-contained volume one, written with room for a sequel but not really demanding one. While we knew those involved were parts of larger organisations, we did not necessarily see that the events of that story were facets of a larger conflict playing out at a higher level. City of Exiles both more clearly demands a sequel (I won’t say too much for fear of spoilers, but it leaves us in no doubt that more is to come) and shows us that the little lives we have been following are part of a broader conflict which these bit players only, as yet, dimly perceive.
The end of volume two here is not as negative as, say, the end of Empire Strikes Back, an archetypal volume two, (and second act, for that matter) where the story broadens out and the simplicity of the heroic narrative becomes deepened by the need to treat the heroes as people rather than archetypes. City of Exiles ends with a win for the goodies, though it proves to be more of a holding action, so still more or less conforms.
The book satisfies as a thriller, the twists are set up such that there is no moment where the actions fail to convince, though (for me) the moment where our main villain gets rattled and shifts from thorough, considered action to desperate violence was the moment when the book became somehow more ordinary. The chase it ended with was exciting, and grew organically out of what went before, and brought many threads together and was in no way unfair. It just, and I know this is unfair as a criticism, did not quite feel right. I would have liked to see our antagonist hold his nerve rather than give his pursuers some free hits; perhaps that is more a refection of just how successful the author was in drawing him as cool and clinical.
The book aims at the heart of the genre; its task is to keep you reading and now and again raise your pulse. It works. The chapters often end with a tease or a revelation or a twist, all planted to get the reader to the next page. If I have a criticism of this, it is that the chapters are all pretty short, mostly say 6 to 8 pages, and this gives the book a somewhat repetitive rhythm. In his short fiction Nevala-Lee has shown himself able to conjure up a mood of menace and a strong sense of atmosphere, and I cannot help but wonder whether the book might not benefit from a couple of slightly longer sections that let the reader get a bit closer to the people without being rushed off to the next plot point, and give the author a chance to extend himself and his talents. Just as in a paragraph a series of sentences of the same length eventually wears on the reader, so, I am hypothesising, might a series of chapters of much the same length. Probably his editors cut the long chapters. Probably this goes against all wisdom in the ‘how to write and sell a thriller’ bible. Yet I wonder.
I really like the book; I’d like to see something more ambitious and sui generis from this author; that’s where his short fiction lives and hopefully with a trilogy of ‘conventional’ high quality thrillers under his belt he feels tooled up and ready to step off the highway and explore the back roads a little more. I’ll be interested to see what comes after Eternal Empire.