A City Dreaming: Intriguing hero, intriguing setting

A City Dreaming by Daniel Polansky fantasy book reviewsA City Dreaming by Daniel Polansky fantasy book reviewsA City Dreaming by Daniel Polansky

First things first: A City Dreaming (2016) is not really a novel (as its cover claims). It’s more like a collection of connected short stories that all feature the same protagonist (an adept named M) in the same setting (a supernatural New York City). The stories progress chronologically and have a cast of recurring characters. I liked this set-up quite well, but I suspect that some readers will want to be warned about this straight off so they can choose to approach A City Dreaming when they’re in the mood for a more episodic adventure.

M has just returned to NYC after being out of the country for years. He’s introverted and somewhat of a loner, so at first he doesn’t let anyone know he’s in town, but soon the magical community becomes aware of his presence and then his friends, acquaintances, and enemies begin demanding his time and attention.

Besides being a physically powerful man, M is something of a magician, but not in the classical sense. He never explains to us exactly what he can and can’t do. He tells us that his power is that, most of the time (but not all the time), he’s got it in good with “the management.” Mostly that means being really lucky, being in the right place at the right time, not having to work for money, defying statistics – that sort of thing. But occasionally we get glimpses of something more than luck, making it seem like M is not telling us the whole truth. Maybe this is because he’s so private, or maybe it’s because he doesn’t actually understand himself either. We learn that despite looking like he’s in his 30s (I think), he’s actually much older, as are his friends and enemies.

Each chapter of A City Dreaming relates one of M’s adventures in the city he loves. We watch M:

  • rescue his friend (a woman named “Boy”) from the pirates of the Gowanus Canal
  • try to avoid and to appease the self-proclaimed Queens of New York City
  • ride a subway train that (fortunately) doesn’t exist in the real NYC
  • try to eradicate a hallucination-generating monster living in the backroom of his favorite bar
  • confront a cliché of a wizard and his staff of zombie waiters at a silent charity auction
  • disparage monogamy when his friends try to set him up with a woman he’s not interested in
  • take an experimental drug that temporarily installs a god in his brain (M uses a lot of drugs)
  • expel the plethora of coffee shops that have suddenly popped up in his neighborhood
  • very reluctantly take on a young apprentice named Flemel
  • outwit a giant whose girlfriend he stole decades ago
  • run into an ex-girlfriend while shopping at The Strand
  • accidentally walk through a portal that takes him to a steampunk version of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe
  • attempt to stop a bad guy from obtaining the Salmon of Wisdom
  • meet with all the other magical folks concerned about the turtle whose back Manhattan was built on
  • go on a scavenger hunt to try to appease a Green Man who wants a box of pastries that I assume are like Cronuts
  • outwit some finance guys who were planning to sacrifice him to Moloch in a mansion in the Hamptons
  • attend numerous parties and orgies
  • try to steal a powerful grimnoir guarded by a badass librarian
  • enter a condemned house that contains ghastly horrors
  • track down the abusive boyfriend of a woman who killed herself
  • solve a murder mystery involving his friends

As I said, I liked the episodic nature of M’s story and I loved M himself. He’s lazy, phlegmatic, slightly sarcastic, and a bit of a curmudgeon, but he has a good heart. I also loved Daniel Polansky’s writing style which is wry, unvarnished, and edgy but smooth. I chuckled often. The setting is also appealing, and the book is perhaps an homage to New York City. I hope Polansky will be writing more stories set in this magical city.

The audiobook narrated by Eric Meyers and produced by Blackstone Audio is excellent. Meyers gives a perfect performance, sounding exactly like M is portrayed. If A City Dreaming sounds like something you’d be interested in, I highly recommend the audio version. It’s 12 hours long.

Published in 2016. A powerful magician returns to New York City and reluctantly finds himself in the middle of a war between the city’s two most powerful witches. “It would help if you did not think of it as magic. M certainly had long ceased to do so.” M is an ageless drifter with a sharp tongue, few scruples, and the ability to bend reality to his will, ever so slightly. He’s come back to New York City after a long absence, and though he’d much rather spend his days drinking artisanal beer in his favorite local bar, his old friends—and his enemies—have other plans for him. One night M might find himself squaring off against the pirates who cruise the Gowanus Canal; another night sees him at a fashionable uptown charity auction where the waitstaff are all zombies. A subway ride through the inner circles of hell? In M’s world, that’s practically a pleasant diversion. Before too long, M realizes he’s landed in the middle of a power struggle between Celise, the elegant White Queen of Manhattan, and Abilene, Brooklyn’s hip, free-spirited Red Queen, a rivalry that threatens to make New York go the way of Atlantis. To stop it, M will have to call in every favor, waste every charm, and blow every spell he’s ever acquired—he might even have to get out of bed before noon. Enter a world of Wall Street wolves, slumming scenesters, desperate artists, drug-induced divinities, pocket steampunk universes, and demonic coffee shops. M’s New York, the infinite nexus of the universe, really is a city that never sleeps—but is always dreaming.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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