I have been looking forward to this book ever since it came out early last year. Now that it’s a finalist for the Hugo Award, I finally picked it up. It took me a lot longer than expected and it didn’t grab me as much as Anders’ debut novel did but – like most of the other finalists – it is a worthy entry in this year’s shortlist.
THE CITY IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT
by Charlie Jane Anders
Published: Tor, 2019
Ebook: 368 pages
My rating: 7/10
Opening line: This manuscript has been translated from the original Xiosphanti and Argelan into Peak English, which as Jthkyklakno points out [ref. 2327.288] has become “the language which everyone reads, but nobody speaks,” across several worlds and spacenodes.
“If you control our sleep, then you can own our dreams… And from there, it’s easy to control our entire lives.”
Set on a planet that has fully definitive, never-changing zones of day and night, with ensuing extreme climates of endless, frigid darkness and blinding, relentless light, humankind has somehow continued apace — though the perils outside the built cities are rife with danger as much as the streets below.
But in a world where time means only what the ruling government proclaims, and the levels of light available are artificially imposed to great consequence, lost souls and disappeared bodies are shadow-bound and savage, and as common as grains of sand. And one such pariah, sacrificed to the night, but borne up by time and a mysterious bond with an enigmatic beast, will rise to take on the entire planet–before it can crumble beneath the weight of human existence.
This is the story of a tidally-locked planet and the humans trying to survive on it. Told through Sophie and Mouth’s point of view, we get to see the strictly ruled city of Xiosphant – where life is completely dominated by time and being seen outside after shutters up is a crime – and we get to see the city of Argelan where time doesn’t matter and everybody lives by their own rhythm. But the planet January wasn’t empty when humans decided to colonize it many years ago… there are several native species living here, and other than the humans, they do so in harmony with the planet’s harsh nature.
The story begins with Sophie and her best friend Bianca, who live by the strict Xiosphanti rules but dream of revolution. Wouldn’t it be great if work could be divided more fairly among people? If missing curfew didn’t bring harsh punishment? If life could be a little more fun and a little less serious? Well, dreaming about these things is easy. When Sophie takes the blame for a petty crime however, she is sentenced to death outside the city walls. As one side of the planet exists in eternal night – and the terrible cold that comes with it, this sentence usually doesn’t take very long. But Sophie meets one of the native creatures, something the humans call “crocodiles” although they have nothing in common with actual crocodiles, and her life is saved.
Having survived, she now lives in secret with people she can trust, and can only watch her former best friend from afar, yearning for their friendship, hoping to just be able to tell Bianca that she’s still alive. But it isn’t until Bianca falls for a travelling trader’s scheme that Sophie shows up in her life again.
That travelling trader is Mouth who, along with her group of colleagues, transports goods from Xiosphant to Argelo and vice versa. But she also has her own agenda. As her own culture has been wiped out completely, she is desperate for an old artifact that is supposed to be in the Xiosphant palace. And she’s willing to go through Bianca to get it. But things don’t turn out as planned of course and Mouth, as well as Sophie and Bianca, soon make their way to Argelo and get to see a whole different side of this planet… and of each other.
Anders doesn’t spend much time setting up her world at first. So I felt quite lost for a while, not understanding either Xiosphanti culture or how life worked exactly in the small strip of January where night and day meet. There is mention of lightsickness, of how cold the night is, how the currency is actually a lot of sub-currencies (one for food, one for housing, etc.) and how important the rules of timefulness are. But there’s no bigger picture and no mention of other cities existing until later in the story. Only when we met Mouth did I realize that travel on this planet was possible – if rather difficult – and that a second city existed where humans lived. I don’t know if I missed that somewhere in the text or if it really wasn’t mentioned before but to me, it came pretty much out of nowhere.
Once I had figured out the set up and some of the world building, however, I really liked this book. But I liked it in a scientific kind of way, if you know what I mean. I appreciated the ideas, I loved the message and how it was conveyed, but I was only emotionally engaged a few times during certain scenes rather than throughout the whole book. Many things left me rather cold emotionally while I could still look at them with interest from an ideas standpoint.
For example, there are several key relationships in this book. The first one is between Sophie and Bianca. Sophie may feel more than just friendship for Bianca but Xiosphant is apparently homophobic, judging from Sophie’s hesitance to even admit to herself that she may be in love with another girl. When these two reunite after Bianca thought Sophie dead for years, their relationship is frayed to say the least and one sublot is them trying to regain that former trust, to become best friends once more. But each of them has changed in the meantime and they may not even want the same things anymore. Or be willing to make the same sacrifices.
The second intriguing relationship is between Mouth and… well, everyone really. There is the dynamic between Mouth and her sleep mate Alyssa. They are friends who banter a lot, there is a kind of master and apprentice thing going on there, but the more Mouth opens up about her lost culture – the nomad tribe that called themselves the Citizens – and how she desperately wants it to survive somehow, the more this dynamic shifts. Mouth becomes more vulnerable, Alyssa asserts herself more. And all of that is shown in small moments, in key scenes, through dialogue or action. I found it quite impressive how many nuances of friendship and love Anders managed to put on the page and without the slightest bit of info dumping. You read about these people and you just know that something has changed. You don’t have to be told specifically.
And as you can see, there were certain parts of the story that did get to me. First and foremost Sophie’s connection to the Gelet – the “crocodiles” – and how others immediately want to abuse it. Secondly, Sophie and Bianca’s relationship and Bianca as a person in general brought me close to tears on occasion. It didn’t quite make up for the long stretches of story where I didn’t much care but I was really impressed that these characters I thought I didn’t care about suddenly made me that angry.
This is also the story of an attempted revolution and all the messy shit that comes with that. Turns out ruling is hard and sometimes you accidentally sell your soul on the way to doing good. And sometimes what you think is good isn’t good for everyone. That’s all I can say without spoiling anything. Let’s just say that I found the characters believable in their actions and the consequences of those actions educational.
There was also something else that bothered me but I can’t quite put my finger on it. To me, it felt like while this book has a core theme and explores many other adjacent themes – colonialism, living with vs. opposed to nature, how to govern a society, etc – there were too many ideas for this one story. The differences between the cities of Xiosphant and Argelo, for example, were so crass they were almost caricatures. And there are frequent mentions of the Mothership, who contributed to it, what riots happened on it, and so on. So it’s a world rich in history but I never felt I got enough of it. Most of that history has little bearing on the plot but I couldn’t help but want to learn more. That’s super nitpicky and I don’t even know why it bothered me. It’s like I’m complaining that Charlie Jane Anders created a world that’s too interesting to just leave it at this one story.
My lack of emotional connection may also be more my own fault as the author’s. I took quite a while to finish this book, sometimes reading only one short chapter, other times reading a whole chunk of the book – and of course, the more I read in one sitting, the more engaged I was. So maybe if I’d just read this a bit faster with fewer breaks, I would have loved it more. Which doesn’t mean I didn’t love it but as I have to compare it to the other Best Novel finalists that are up for the Hugo Award, personal enjoyment is my number one reason for ranking one book above the other. And while this one got better and better toward the end, I think the beginning was too weak for a truly great rating. There were some nice surprises and twists along the way, I really enjoyed how the story ended, even though many plot strings are left dangling, but as it took so long to get going and there were parts that I didn’t enjoy all that much, this will end up somewhere in the middle of my ballot.
MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good