Tuesday, October 4, 2016

City of Burning Shadows (Apocrypha: The Dying World #1) by Barbara J. Webb

Joshua Drake lives in hiding… he manages to scrape up a desperate, sad existence on the fringes of society in a city – a world - that is slowly dying.

But when someone manages to present some hope – in these dying days – to actually save the city from its looming destruction, Joshua is called on to act.

Yet beyond simple decay he finds a threat looming far greater and more sinister than he imagined.

This is an extremely original world setting – a world where the gods are pretty much responsible for everything. A world where gods controlled and were part of everything, where they made everything, where they developed and where an aspect in everything – where everything people did, the cities they built, the homes they made all involved one god or more. Even entire peoples are created by the gods and their whole existence and abilities are defined by their patron god because of it.

That alone creates for an interesting world – where you have entire beings be archetypes with their own cultures and philosophies and values based on the gods. I think that so far that has been subtle because the book doesn’t turn the people into automatons – the Jaynsians with their dedication to work and company are still capable of loving deeply even if loyalty to their employer is a driving element of theirs. The shapeshifters can form committed relationships even if change and flux is inherent to them – I like how we both see they are alien but they are also, equally, people. It’s a very nicely struck balance to make alien creatures without making them shallow or hollow.

Then those gods disappear – and how does this society continue?  Everything depending on the gods that are now gone – do people even know how to live without them? Just the basic logistics – if your city depends on rain from a beneficent sky goddess to make it rain in the desert then how to our work when she goes away?

But then there’s the equally fascinating hint of new opportunities. Said sky goddess, for example, equally refuses to allow flying things… so what other opportunities are available? It’s nice to throw in that as well to add to the potential of this world.

The underlying tone of this is that everything is ending – every thing the characters do has a sense of just delaying the inevitable

One interesting element that comes from this which will be something to see developed is the nature of faith. After all, this world setting pretty much has a priesthood without faith. They don’t need faith – they have tangible, real proof their gods are real. They communed with their gods. They spoke with their gods. They could invoke their gods’ powers. Their gods were proven aspects of reality. Faith was not a requirement

And now the gods are abandoned them, it is left for the priests, for the people, to decide what to do about that – after venting the rage and the anger, after blaming people, after making scapegoats – who still believes the gods are out there, the gods will return; who still turn to the gods in times of need. And is that an aspect of faith and loyalty or utter desperation?

This is all told rather well through the eyes of Joshua Drake, an ex-priest (ex-because his god is gone) who has faced the fury of the populace, carrying the magical and educational legacy of his past but still struggling to find something of a place in the world. He’s in hiding, he regards his employment as little more than charity and lives in fear of people seeing the tattoo that identifies his face. He has an excellent emotional reaction to all this – anger, fear, still a clinging element of hope and faith along with growing faith and connections with his employees – and newly chosen family.

There’s also some considerable diversity here. Miroc is a city with a predominant POC population among the majority, human population. Joshua Drake is clearly describes as a man of colour (and look, non-whitewashed cover) – and his description of the human inhabitants of the city makes it clear that POC are by far and away the majority population and that pale skin is rare.

Iris and Amelia are two main characters who have major positions of influence both in the firm and the city with Iris being an active participant in the plot are both women and in a relationship (they’re also both dark skinned though Iris is also a shapeshifter and can pretty much look like anything). Even if that relationship isn’t central to the plot, it’s also a clear element of their characters which isn’t just brushed aside or mentioned once. We have further strong female characterisation from Seanna, a capable and respected businesswoman even if it doesn’t end well

There’s a lot to love about this book and definitely a lot to look forward to in future books. I also really like the writing style, it’s evocative while still being concise. If I have one issue it’s that this book seems to pack too much in – introducing the shadowy threat which may have been better used in a later book. The world building and characterisation already needs so much excellent, amazing development and exploration that I think this book could have been more of an introduction foundation than introducing Syed and how being a child of a god shapes you and the whole shadows and their confused reasoning. It’s not a bad plot line – it’s an awesome plot line – but there’s a lot in this book – give me time to digest just a little more before the next course of awesome.