The Drowning City by Amanda Downum (2009. 384 pages. Fantasy)
Tired of fantasy novels that all strike the same culture notes, revolve around a (male) chosen one and his quest, and stretch laboriously across book after book? If so, I recommend you check out Amanda Downum’s The Drowning City.
A delicious blend of cultural influences from across south Asia, the story is set in the titular drowning city, Symir. Symir is a lush place — humid, veined with canals, and thrumming with violence and intrigue — and it is to this city that necromancer and spy Isyllt Iskaldur is sent by her masters to stir up rebellion.
Though Downum does a great job of making the world her story is set in feel like a vast, diverse, and sprawling place, and though she alludes to larger schemes at work, they all lie beyond the scope of the novel itself. This is an epic fantasy in tone, but it’s set in just one place with just one story; it is self-contained and absorbing.
As Isyllt goes about her work of inciting revolution, she encounters a secretive fire mage, an out-of-her-depth would-be revolutionary, and a displaced, genocide-ravaged jungle people who’s ghosts won’t lie quiet. The intrigues Isyllt uncovers and encourages soon prove far more dangerous than she imagined and the world of Symir positively steams with magic of all possible stripes and persuasions.
Isyllt herself is an unusual heroine — definitely one of the “dark and troubled” ilk. As a necromancer, her magic is literally the power of death, and she wields it in interesting ways (no spoilers here, though, I promise!). Prickly, brooding, and thrill-seeking, Isyllt is the kind of woman to plunge headlong into danger, which makes for plenty of thrilling action.
Some may find her character unlikable and her apparent death wish unsettling, but her ruthless, ends-justify-the-means exterior is just that, her exterior. In Isyllt, Downum has created a very textured character, and one I found a fascinating guide through the story (though her point of view is not the only one relied upon in the narrative).
A final comment: despite it’s fantastical nature, the Drowning City and it’s inhabitants feel incredibly real; Downum has grounded her tale in believable emotions and motivations. The betrayals, sacrifices, and triumphs come twisting at you unexpectedly while still managing to seem inevitable (at least in hindsight). Best of all, if you find this book as satisfying as I did, there are two others (both stand-alone novels featuring Isyllt) to come: The Bone Palace and The Kingdoms of Dust.