Ian Whates’ City of Light & Shadow is the third novel in the CITY OF A HUNDRED ROWS series. The series title refers to Thaiburley, a city of rows built on top of each other. The lowest rows are plagued by gang violence while the well-intentioned leaders at the Heights do their best to keep order. The previous novel, City of Hope & Despair, relied on its supporting cast of assassins and gang leaders to drive the plot forward. Here, our not-quite-a-chosen-one hero, Tom, takes center stage.
Tom is an adolescent uniquely blessed with the power to save the city from the corruption of the goddess Thaiss’ evil brother. We learn that this brother has corrupted the source of arkademic power — the core — in the city, and now people are dying of bone flu while Rust Warriors and Demons take over Thaiburley. In short, the plot has become considerably more epic. Tom is at the heart of this change: he meets a goddess, he is trained to use the arkademics’ power, and he is given more significant quests by the Prime Master. Through Tom, we are even introduced to Thaiburley’s magic system.
The shift from the local to the grandiose is not uncommon — or even unexpected — in the third installment of a series. However, I have found Whates’ focus on the smaller details to be the best part of this series. Although Dewar, the assassin, is still present, his plot is frustratingly inconsequential. He travels to his homeland in search of vengeance for past wrongs, only to return to Thaiburley. It’s too bad, since his carefully calculated plans are always fun to read. Meanwhile, the “Death Queen” Kat and the Kite Guard Tylus lead a band of soldiers and Tattooed Men into the “Stain,” an even more unsavory part of Thaiburley than the Pits. The Stain is populated by monsters that recall China Miéville’s remade, and they serve as unsympathetic pin cushions for our heavily armed heroes.
Between Tylus, Kat, Dewar and Tom, City of Light & Shadow offers more than its share of swords and sorcery. Demons, creatures, warriors, kings, and assassins are all vanquished. And given that Whates has managed to craft yet another relatively short read, he is forced to keep a fast pace as he directs his characters from one confrontation to the next. However, I found that the action in these sequences was less compelling, perhaps because the more grandiose narrative limits Whates’ pages spent storytelling.
Regardless, Whates has a knack for world building, and although I found the plot of City of Light & Shadow a disappointment compared to the previous two novels, it packs a lot of punch for action fans and it does offer a heck of an ending.