Subdued by one empire and menaced by another, the city of Symir is a liminal space in more than one way. Caught between the land and the sea, at the mercy of a treacherous river and a smouldering volcano, it is home to mages and politicians, spies and smugglers, bureaucrats and more than one kind of rebel. In its streets and alleys, nothing and no one are quite what they seem. Isyllt Iskaldur has been sent by her government to do what she can to destabilise Symir by aiding its rebels and undermining its overlords. Swept up in plots and counterplots, betrayed by allies and aided by apparent enemies, Isyllt must call on all her resources to carry through her mission and survive.
On the surface, The Drowning City looks quite a lot like a number of other books—a conflicted, talented heroine, a decadent and deceitful urban landscape, a cast of rebels, mages, heirs to mysterious power, and ghosts. That first impression is—like many of the characters who populate the book—deceptive. Downum takes us into that dark and dangerous territory pioneered by Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber, and practised today by Violette Malan, Joshua Palmatier, and Scott Lynch, and she rapidly proves herself an expert guide. This is a densely plotted, densely textured novel, drenched in atmosphere and danger. The cast is large, and includes forest-dwelling natives who plot the downfall of their overlords in alliance with blood-thirsty familial ghosts; urban nobility with compromised ethics and many secrets; a representative of the ruling empire with an agenda of his own; an exile longing for restoration of place and land . . . Each has their own desires and aims, their own flaws and failings, but Downum juggles with considerable skill and without disguising or withholding information from the reader. There is no cheating in this book and very few concessions: this is a plot you need to keep your eye on at all times, and you need to remember that not everyone you meet is honest. The text is both lush and reticent, controlled and overwhelming—this is not a rollercoaster book but it may be a high-class ghost train. Revelations and dangers come thick and fast, but there is always a new mystery to uncover.
This is not an unmixed blessing. It can sometimes be hard to keep track of all the characters, and I did find myself skipping back sometimes to identify someone, and wishing for one of those cast lists that are provided with epic fantasy and Tolstoy. It can be frustrating, too, to be involved in one section of the action—in the dark forest with the exile and rebel Xinai—for instance, and then find yourself jerked back to Isyllt or to the other primary character, the mage-trainee Zhirin. I would have liked to stay longer in some scenes and locations and had more chance to get to know them. Downum prefers to tantalise with hints and allusions, sketching in a much bigger world while keeping her focus on the here-and-now of her plot. We and Isyllt may be new to Symir, but we are not cosseted: this is immersive fantasy, and we learn as we go on. That, for me anyway, is one the great strengths of the book. There is so much more in this world—the warring empires; the magic and its colleges; Isyllt's own story—than this book tells and that lends it a depth that is rarely found in recent fantasy, with its 'explain everything' ethos.
Another strength is Isyllt herself. She could easily have been another of the tough-girl heroines so popular at present in a lot of urban fantasy, or an over-competent, over-glamorised wish-fulfilment figure. She isn't: she is the focus of the book, the catalyst for much of the story, but it is not all about her, and she never makes the mistake of thinking so. She is capable, certainly, but also uncertain, conflicted (but not angst-ridden) and a little aloof: a heroine you must get to know, rather than have handed to you wrapped in a big bow. I liked her a lot, precisely because I had to learn to understand her. Xinai is another well-drawn figure, who is angst-ridden, but with good and real reason and whose actions take us into the murky territory of terrorism and betrayal. Zhirin is perhaps a little sketchier—there were points when I would have liked a little more insight into her. But she is also the youngest of the leads: her life has been simpler. This is a plot led by women, shaped by women, largely run by women, but it avoids the bulk of the fantasy heroine clichés and that is refreshing.
The problem area may be the background. This not a European or American city and there are overtones of the exotic in some of the description: "Wooden platforms covered most of the Floating Garden, firmly lashed together and to the banks . . . Lanterns bobbed in a web of ropes overhead, their reflections like colored moons in the night-black water." Downum has lived in Indonesia and makes considerable efforts in her depiction of Xinai and her people to represent them with respect. This is a fantasy world, moreover, and one that has done more than just file the serial numbers off a map of the world. There are aspects that made me slightly uneasy—the desert demons, for instance. But Downum is at pains to be careful: both Isyllt and the reader are left in no doubt of the strength, complexity and self-sufficiency of the cultures they meet.
In recent years fantasy has shown signs of moving away from an emphasis on the Tolkienian epic and returning to the equally rich vein of Leiber and Howard. Downum is a strong new voice in this latter, and The Drowning City is a lot of intense, atmospheric fun. I look forward to the next instalment.
Kari Sperring is the author of Living with Ghosts (Daw, 2009), and is the reviews editor for Vector, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association. As Kari Maund, she is an historian of Britain in the early Middle Ages and has published five books and many articles in that field. With Phil Nanson, she is co-author of The Four Musketeers: The True Story of d'Artagnan, Porthos, Aramis and Athos. She lives and works in Cambridge, England.