The City of Dusk by Tara Sim is a delightful, complex, intimate yet explosive debut adult fantasy novel, the first in a planned trilogy titled The Dark Gods. Sim’s first foray into adult fantasy, after her two YA series, the novel is a self-described “goth fantasy” with shadow familiars, necromancy, demons, a diverse cast, angry, murderous gods, and celestial weapons. Much like her other books, The City of Dusk features “stabby girls, soft boys, and death,” as she stated on Twitter. Thus, fans of her Timekeeper and Scavenge the Stars series will find familiar themes in the new format of a dark, epic fantasy.
In the blurb included with my ARC copy, we read that, “For each realm there is a god, and for each god there is an heir.” The book follows four heirs as they attempt to save their dying realm—after the barriers between realms were closed off in the Sealing five hundred years ago—while grappling with internal struggles and the external threat of the Conjurers. The City of Dusk is, at heart, a story both about saving one’s realm and about relationships: gaining them and losing them. Driving the conflict of the book are familial relations—the complex bond between parents and children, the balance of expectations and destiny versus internal wants and motivations, the ties between siblings with all the good and bad, and the tangles and anchors of everything in between. There are also romantic relationships—finding someone who understands you and what you need, outgrowing familiar dynamics, ethics versus loyalty—and friendships—love versus duty, diverging paths, betrayal and hope. I especially appreciated that we saw a few loving sibling relationships at the beginning of the book, ones in which the individuals involved actually trust each other, because too often siblings are immediately pitted against each other from the first page.
While there is a main plot that accelerates over the course of the book, this novel is still a character-driven story: it focuses on how each character chooses to act, how they react to circumstances, on their motivations, and on the contrasting desires of each main character. Given that each heir is meant to vie for inheriting the throne while fulfilling parental expectations for their House, and each is initially preoccupied with internal struggles (whether it is longing for freedom, wanting to reform the kingdom, mastering one’s power, allowing the dead to cross over, or struggling with grief and an unwanted role), this creates well-crafted and heartbreaking conflict. Friendships and other bonds are tested, secrets are kept, motivations misunderstood, desires clash, and working together for the good of the realm proves to be quite difficult.
Much like many adult fantasy books, à la A Song of Ice and Fire by G. R. R. Martin, The City of Dusk conveys all this through multiple points of view. Thus, the pacing draws out tension and keeps the reader engaged throughout the entire book, while still allowing the audience to care for and understand each individual character’s position, reasoning, and actions. There is an ever-present dilemma of liking each character, even when they are at odds with one another. It also helped that each point of view was entertaining to read, provided important plot and character information, and often did not make the reader wait too long to find out what was happening to another character.
Mainly, the book follows the four heirs: Taesia Lastrider, Nikolas Cyr, Angelica Mardova, and Risha Vakara. Julian Luca becomes an important POV character as his role in the story increases, and Dante Lastrider—Taesia’s older brother—provides an important POV toward the beginning and the end. The individual chapter headers of the House symbols help signal the different points of view and were an appreciated touch. Moreover, the introductory sentence for each heir perfectly draws the reader in while encompassing that person’s character. Chapter I begins: “Taesia Lastrider had never considered herself a good person, nor did she have any intention of becoming one.” Chapter II opens: “Risha Vakara asked for death to take her, and once again death declined.” Chapter III, meanwhile, introduces our third character with: “Angelica Mardova, stuck in a meeting she’d long tuned out of, wanted badly to play her violin.” And our fourth and final heir is introduced in Chapter IV with: “Nikolas Cyr tested the weight of the sword in his hand and briefly fantasized about plunging it into his father’s neck.”
I loved each character and wanted the best for them. The novel’s descriptions of architecture, clothing, and food made the setting feel real and grounded. I thoroughly enjoyed that the world Sim has created was inspired by real-life cultures and aesthetics while mixing with original societal structures, races, creatures, and architecture. That aspect was refreshingly diverse, and I liked how much empathy there was in the book for different races, creatures, and societies. Another unique factor, and one which I really appreciated, was how the book centered LGBTQ+ characters and themes: not only is it nice when authors create their worlds in ways that reflect the multiple facets and realities of our world—queer, trans, disabled, POC characters—but this particular world was queernormative in the sense that LGBTQ+ characters could simply exist. While the city of Nexus and its country, Vaega, have issues — such as the Other-Realm refugees whose stories we learn about — being queer isn’t one of them.
The book’s structure creates a story that feels very intimate and narrowly focused while also showcasing a rich, sprawling world, a variety of cultures and ways, and an expanded scope beyond the narrow preoccupations of each heir. It was both epic and grounded, due to the personal stakes, the rippling consequences for each action, the multiple ways the author showcased the decay of the realm, how each conflict and story element were intertwined, and the connections that characters had to the larger societal issues touched upon in the book. Finally, the writing style is at once lyrical, straightforward, and descriptive. When it comes to the surroundings—architecture, clothing, etc.—Sim is poetic. Emotions are given an enormous amount of weight, with much focus on feelings, internal motivations, and even the expressions and attitudes of the people around whichever point-of-view character is narrating at a given moment. The sentences were engaging and easy to read, while still containing unique turns of phrase. As such, The City of Dusk is engaging, poetic, and enjoyable to read.
While I genuinely enjoyed The City of Dusk, then, there were nevertheless a few aspects I found repetitive and annoying. For example, the exposition and worldbuilding at the novel’s beginning was overdone and recursive, in ways that distracted from the story it was telling. There is a dramatis personae detailing the individuals of each House, an epigraph, a prologue that sets the tone and creates a mystery, and multiple points of view—all aspects done in a way that felt like adult fantasy to me. The first few chapters, however, kept repeating the same information about the Sealing and the Cosmic Scale, most of the time in ways that did not feel like natural segues to explore a facet of the world. I would honestly have preferred an explicit history lesson in the form of a prologue or excerpt from a textbook at the beginning of the book. Given that the book was marketed as an adult fantasy with crossover appeal between YA/Adult, perhaps that is why this aspect of the worldbuilding felt rather different to that which surrounded it.
Furthermore, the way that epic fantasy engages with history and time is in general often either very well done, or very poorly done: either the time span is too long for the story the author is telling, or the time feels too short. In The City of Dusk, the way that each character spoke of the Sealing, happening five hundred years ago and changing the fabric of their society and the roles of each heir, made it sound like each heir had personally experienced it. There was no sense of remove from the event, and I kept wondering if I was missing something about the lifespans of the heirs (perhaps they live much longer than us?), because it truly read like either they or their parents had experienced the world before the Sealing, and had seen it happen in real time. The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin (2015), I thought, dealt with this problem better, weaving a tale that showcased the span of years both in terms of how long the novel’s current empire had ruled, and also how long since its world had first broken, but actually conveyed that span of time and never delivered an out-of-place history lesson better put elsewhere. While the aspect of deep time in The City of Dusk does become more grounded as the book goes on, the confusions surrounding it detract from the rest of the story and the great writing.
I also want to briefly mention the novel’s ending. I thought it was very well done, concluding the conflict of the Godsnight while ensuring there is still tension, and the coda was absolutely perfect. Nevertheless, I would say there wasn’t as much catharsis and resolution as I would have liked for the ending of a first book. It felt more akin to the end of an arc. I was reminded of the structure of printed webnovels, whose singular story is split up into volumes for print, usually along the lines of story arcs. I would not call the ending a cliffhanger, but I had wanted a little bit more time to breathe, for the characters to resolve a few more things—a longer lull before the events of the next book.
Nevertheless, Tara Sim’s writing throughout is engaging, emotional, and very clever. So much foreshadowing was laid out throughout the course of the story, in terms of character development, the main conflicts, and the mysteries threaded through the book. There were recurring themes of the destructiveness of the current system and the need to create a new one; following rules and expectations versus what needs to be done; and of characters embracing their darkness and powers. There are meditations on monsters (what makes one, what is the line that should not be crossed, what is irredeemable, the question of loyalty) and on power (wanting power, using one’s privilege, how it can be a shackle); love and sacrifice are driving forces. Multiple characters are introduced early on who gain a greater role as the novel proceeds. The character development is organic and a perfect reflection of the conflict, there is some actual communication once in a while between characters, and decisions make sense even when they are heartbreaking or put people at odds with one another. The fact that Sim allows her characters to both be forthright with themselves, while also hiding other aspects of their personalities, is cleverly achieved. The reader is able to get a sense of who the characters are, what they want, and why, but there are still mysteries to solve.
I have seen a few advance reviews state that while The City of Dusk is a great book, the genre marker is wrong: that the book is actually YA, not adult, despite how it was marketed. I wholeheartedly disagree. Apart from the YA-esque exposition in the first few chapters, this is very much an adult epic fantasy in the best sort of way. The scope, the multiple points of view, the themes (among others) of responsibilities and personhood, the worldbuilding that becomes more intricate, the structure: fans of epic fantasy with necromancy, demons, gods, complicated and morally grey characters, multiple viewpoints, and a rich world are sure to find much enjoyment and excitement here. If the novel also has some significant issues, these are not fatal—and they are certainly not the exclusive “faults” of YA fiction.