A CITY DREAMING by Daniel Polansky (my December read for this blog category, even though I got to it early) does a wonderful job making magic weird and mysterious. But despite the requisite “a novel” on the title, it’s closer to a collection of short stories — there’s no character arc and no overall story arc.
The Story: M is an unaging wizard (most wizards are, I gather) who after decades in Europe returns to New York. He has mixed feelings about this as he’s something of a selfish jerk (though less of one than he thinks) and a lot of people have scores to settle (though again, less than he thinks). New York is a magical city built on the back of a giant turtle, and M immerses itself in its strangeness: subway trains that can take you to hell, doorways that slip into parallel worlds, demons that smother you with niceness, coffee bars that propagate magically and the occasional vicious feud among the power players. After averting a near apocalypse and preventing either of the Big Apple’s strongest mages from becoming a demigod, he heads out of town.
WHAT I LEARNED:
Damn, I love weird magic. In an early scene M compares magic to being a regular bar patron, the kind of guy who’s allowed to run a tab or light up a smoke in defiance of the rules. Only the barkeep is God and the rules you’re bending are those of reality. Even without exercising magic, M gets by — luck breaks his way because he’s “in the pocket” of Management. Polansky never really explains the magic, which comes off as weird as The Magicians.
This doesn’t work perfectly. Sometimes M does find himself hard up for money. Of course, it could be that’s just the will of the management, but that slides into deus ex machina territory. But overall, it’s much more effective and magical than magic systems usually are.
Milieu novels are tricky: Orson Scott Card once broke stories down into four categories: setting, character, question and plot-based tales. Polansky is all about the setting. It starts when M enters the world of magical New York and ends when he heads out again. Each short story — er, chapter — shows another aspect of the city or the magic: the subways, magical parties, the wizards, the rivalries.
The upside is that Polansky has created a truly magical milieu and I love it. The downside is that there’s not much else. There’s no overall arc; when M has to help the other wizards stop a climax at the end of the book, it felt off as there was no build up to it (it’s just one more short story with considerably more at stake). And there’s no character arc: M doesn’t change at all (I discussed the nothing-happened aspect of setting stories in a previous post).
Good characters always help. This is definitely one of those books in which, as they say, “setting is a character.” But it would help if there were stronger characters populating it. The supporting cast are as much collections of quirks as they are people; when one character gets murdered, I didn’t care in the slightest. M himself is a more interesting character, but not that interesting. He doesn’t change, as noted; he doesn’t have any goals other than to get laid and get stoned now and again; I can’t say I’d have been upset if he’d died too.
Is muddled POV what the kids are doing these days? A City Dreaming is consistently written from M’s point of view, but periodically and randomly it slips into someone else’s, and once to omniscient narrator voice. It’s never confusing but it makes me wonder if the current crop of writers just doesn’t care so much about that (I had the same problem with Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown) and those of us who do are old fuddy-duddies.
I enjoyed the book, but I think if I’d read it as short stories published over several years I’d have liked them more.