In City of Dreams and Nightmares, Ian Whates introduced us to Thaiburley, a mountain city where the rich literally live at the top of the mountain and the poor make do in the City Below. When Tom, a street-nick with a burgeoning gift for magic, ran afoul of a scheming arkademic, Magnus, he only just managed to escape being killed at the hands of Magnus’ versatile assassin, Dewar. Give credit where it’s due, Tom survived thanks to Kat, a girl who is pretty deadly when armed with her twin short swords. By the end of City of Dreams and Nightmares, readers might have expected to see Tom leave the city below in order to enter the upper echelons of the arkademics and politics. However, throughout City of Hope and Despair, Whates chooses to take the road less taken.
In fact, Whates’ first order of business is to send Tom out of the mountain city and into the countryside. The Prime Master of Thaiburley has taken an interest in the events of City of Dreams and Nightmares. He hires Dewar and takes Tom under his wing. The Prime Master sends Tom on a quest to find the goddess of Thaiburley, suggesting that Whates is grooming Tom for “Chosen One” status. However, for now, Tom is not particularly dangerous. In fact, he does not understand his powers and he can barely manage to swing his sword without hurting himself. Still, Tom is accompanied by a beautiful priestess-healer, a telepathic giant, and, ironically, the assassin Dewar, so it seems like nothing will stop Tom from reaching the goddess.
However, as far as pilgrimages through the countryside go, Tom’s is actually a pretty exciting one, especially since a demon, a Rust Warrior, and a vengeful bartender have all made it their business to kill the former street-nick and his companions. The tendency in a cat-and-mouse fantasy is to invest a great deal of characterization in a ruthless villain, from whom the protagonist will narrowly escape again and again. Whates takes a different approach, killing his characters with gusto, only to introduce new assailants and allies along the way. The benefit of this approach is its novelty; on the other hand, who really cares about a garden that seduces you if you haven’t met the gardener?
Although Tom is on the road, Whates hasn’t entirely abandoned Thaiburley, his beloved City of Hope and Despair. No longer a guide, it seems that Kat is a former “Death Queen” — Whates appears to be aware how corny that sounds — which makes her the retired leader of an elite gang of thugs known as the Tattooed Men. When the story opens, Kat and her sister are content to kill one another. However, when the Soul Thief that killed their mother returns to prey upon the “talented” members of the City Below, Kat decides to come back from retirement. She teams up with her sister to once more roam the streets of Thaiburley as “Death Queens,” at least until the Soul Thief is found and destroyed.
When writing stories with characters like Tom — how many times have we read about the naïve adolescent with mysterious powers? — authors must be tempted to invest a lot of narrative coin in the adolescent character as he explores his powers. If Whates had given in to this temptation, City of Hope and Despair would have been much less interesting. Fortunately, Whates seems to understand that his most provocative characters are the villains, the assassins, and the… Death Queens. In other words, we’re all rooting for dreams and hope to win over nightmares and despair, but we prefer to see it happen from the point of view of characters that are living amidst despair and nightmares. Whates obliges.
Like its predecessor, City of Hope and Despair puts together all of fantasy’s most popular ingredients: extended duels between assassins, a teenager discovering his magical powers, and even hints of an ancient war (is it back?). Yes, there are elements of Whates’ narrative that feel familiar — Thaiburley feels like a PG-13 version of China Miéville’s New Crobuzon and the Rust Warrior recalls Tool from Gardens of the Moon. Still, City of Hope and Despair offers fantasy fans a quick read, a memorable adventure, and the promise of more to come.