Synopsis: A messiah origin story. On a dying colony planet, humanity unknowingly persecutes the one person who could save them by reconciling humanity with the native alien population.
Book Review: This is a story of extremes. The planet is tidally locked, so humanity has settled in the thin terminator line between broiling day and deathly night, but it is not a happy medium… it’s just the place where the two extremes meet. This is a repeated theme. The two cities are split between an ultra-repressive puritanical hell, and a lawless warzone ruled by warring crime families of hedonists. The two main relationships are a caring platonic couple of unconditional acceptance, and a horribly abusive relationship of exploitation. The humans are exploitative and violent, the aliens are so pacifistic they let themselves be killed rather than fight back.
Overall the theme is strong and well done, but I’m not really sure what it was in service of. It seemed to be more of an aesthetic choice than something used for a purpose. I may just be missing it. But much of the book didn’t quite click for me. I loved Anders’ debut novel, All the Birds in the Sky. It was a delightful, surreal combination of absurdism and sincerity that really captured the chaos of being young. The City in the Middle of the Night decided to turn away from surrealism and instead tried to be a realistic “hard SF” world. Anders wasn’t able to bring her gift for surreal expressions of emotional truth into the world, and it suffers for it.
In tandem with that, there are a multitude of examples of things happening because they are convenient for the plot but that don’t really make much sense upon examination. The protagonist’s mother sacrifices herself to stop a fire from destroying a major food source while her coworkers just bicker. But like… how? We are literally told only what I just said. Did she just throw herself on the fire to smother it? If she was doing literally anything else, why would no one one attempt to assist or try to summon help? It seems like a minor detail, but I am thrown out of stories when humans act like ludicrous caricatures so that a primary characters can demonstrate virtue. It’s Atlas Shrugged-ism without the courage to go balls-out Atlas Shrugged with it.
I don’t know how fair of a complaint this is, because I have been on a tear recently about lazy writing being used to create “great scenes” without any narrative cohesion, and when one is primed to be sensitive to such a thing, even small transgressions can jump out and really irritate. I can’t say for sure that two months ago I would have been as bothered by this kind of thing. An author can’t go into detail about every little thing in the world, there’s just a lot that has to go unsaid. But I’d like to at least believe the author considered it and has a picture in her own head on how such a sacrifice would have actually played out, and I cannot believe that given what we read.
There’s a bunch of similar examples. A villain tells a mook where a character is being held (in detail!) while the hero happens to be in earshot for no reason at all (aside from making life easy for the hero). The humans arriving on the new planet open the airlock and then immediately fall gasping to the ground under the strange atmosphere and increased gravity, because a cool scene is more important than people being smart enough to check the air first, and also feel gravity before the door opens?? Two otherwise intelligent characters tromp through the streets yelling after curfew in the military lockdown city for no freakin reason except because the story needs them to get caught by the police now. When the main character reveals to her friend she can speak to the aliens, her incredibly intelligent and socially liberal friend laughs her off — which is already ridiculous — and the main character responds by never bringing up this ability to anyone else ever again. OK, I get that she’s shy and she has trauma but, really?
The thing is, I still like the story overall. I like Anders’s style, and I like messiah stories. This is a good messiah origin story, and it ends with such a beautiful breakthrough scene that it’ll stay with me for a long time. But all the irritation of people acting ridiculous along the way detracted from that, and I almost didn’t get there because of it. If I didn’t already love messiah stories I don’t think I’d be very into this novel.
Also, half the novel follows a parallel POV character who is really bad ass at first, but who ultimately doesn’t do anything, and I’m not sure why she’s here or why we follow her. The main story is about the messiah coming to accept her burden, the other POV is just… kinda there.
This one is kinda on the line for me, but I guess if I can’t heartily recommend a book, it’s not actually fair to recommend it. So, mildly Not Recommended.
Book Club Review: As a Hugo nominee, this may be worth picking up due to the meta conversation about this year’s Hugos and the state of the SF publishing landscape. If you’re not into that there are other things that can spark conversation, but it’s hard to say how much it varies from most other works. Several people in our book club didn’t finish it, and almost everyone agreed that the middle was a slog to get through (I was the one exception, I thought it was fine). I dunno, overall, also mildly Not Recommended.