Rejoice! Antonio Díaz is back with a new review. This time, he talks about A City Dreaming, by Daniel Polansky. Hope you enjoy it!
Review Soundtrack: Antonio suggests reading this review while listening to We Come Together, by Goldfish (YouTube, Spotify).
Daniel Polansky is the wonderful The Builders' author. A novella nominated for the Hugo award that, sadly, didn't win (even though I liked it way better than Nnedi Okorafor's Binti). After reading The Builders, a very theatrical work starring anthropomorphic animals seeking revenge, I added Polansky to my “authors-to-follow-closely” list. My chance came with A City Dreaming, an urban fantasy novel that takes place mainly in New York, although the official synopsis tricked me into waiting for something very different to what I finally got.
A City Dreaming's main character is M, a powerful wizard with a very happy-go-lucky mentality, which is, surprisingly, the key to his many years of survival. M knows that every magic action has an opposite and equally powerful reaction. Every time a mage or a wizard affects probabilities or causality in order to bend reality to his will, he risks a comeback. And nobody likes when reality throws back a punch. That's why, as M himself states in the first chapter, he prefers to “get along with the Management”. To go unnoticed and pile up a kind of “positive karma points” that guarantee him a “permanent good luck”. M doesn't have to worry about where to sleep every night or if he has enough money for a meal and clothing in his wallet. He will accidentally find a jacket with a wad of benjamins in the pocket or a new and unexpected lover will offer him shelter and maybe even a part-time job. This neutral stance that characterizes M, this go-with-the-flow allows Polansky to highlight other elements of A City Dreaming.
The book has a style similar to a fix-up. Every chapter is a short story more or less standalone in which M and an assorted collection of secondary characters live adventures, face dangers or simply have a good time. It is very important to have this in mind before reading the book. There is no central plot building up, not even in the background. It's easier to face the reading as a sort of collection with the same main character (like George RR Martin's Tuf Voyaging or like Andrzej Sapkowski's The Last Wish) than to think it has beginning, middle and end. Furthermore, in every chapter/story there is a small lesson or thought M's neutral personality doesn't tarnish and that reaches the reader completely.
I would have undoubtedly enjoyed the book more if this point had been clear before, but even so, we find in A City Dreaming a clear case where the trip itself is more rewarding that the arrival to the destination. This book is an ode to New York and to every element that makes it such a different and special city. M is a mere conduit, the vehicle for the author to explore a peculiar but magical reality and the strange assortment of secondary characters that live in it.
A City Dreaming reminded me strongly of Neil Gaiman's collections, because some of the stories share the same urban fantasy elements, like the extraordinary in the mundane or the dangerous in the seemingly anodyne. Other stories, like the human sacrifice one, reminded me of Tim Pratt’s short fiction (another review I have yet to do), with its evident dark humour.
Daniel Polansky takes advantage of this novel's characteristics (neutral main character, short story form) to satirize. M and the rest of the group are very aware of the typical fantasy tropes and they abuse this knowledge to short circuit some stories. This makes for some really funny moments, like one with M totally ignoring an evident danger because he knows that stereotypes will play in his favour or another one with the main character refusing to take part in an adventure because its ending is clearly foreseeable. Besides these two there are many, many other situations and Polansky doesn't miss a beat to highlight and subtly denounce some worn tropes.
A City Dreaming is a light, easy to get into and very entertaining book. Polansky knows perfectly how to swim in the fantasy waters and surrounds us with a very sharp prose and a very peculiar but constant and coherent main character's voice. All these ingredients helped me enjoy a book that, in addition, is totally self-contained (due to the absence of a main plot).
I've also enjoyed recently Those Above, the first book in the epic fantasy duology by the same author, and I hope to bring soon a review.