The Dark City is the first of a four-book series by Catherine Fisher published years ago in England and now being released (in its entirety rather than year by year) to the US. Classified as young adult, I’d say it skews toward the upper end of YA while also being one of those YA novels that, though it might read a little thin to adults, can absolutely be enjoyed by them.
The books are set in the near-medieval world of Anara, which is filled with the ruins and artifacts of a highly technological society destroyed by cataclysm a while ago. Myths have grown up about the time of the Makers who “came from the sky on stairways of ice”; of the Crow, the messenger between the Makers and people; of Kest, the Maker who betrayed the others; and of the fall of Tasceron, center of Maker life. The myths have been kept alive as a quasi-religion by the Order of Keepers. The Keepers have mystical powers, along with a tiny bit (often partial or warped) of knowledge with regard to the technological artifacts from the Maker’s time. These artifacts are now seen by the general populace as magical/religious objects — and are often feared, a logical response as many times the found “relics” are dangerous due to malfunction, age, or simple unintentional misuse. Once upon the time the Order thrived and was greatly respected, the Keeper called in to remove relics and their “curses.” Recently, the governing agency — the Watch — has outlawed the Order, decimating its ranks and driving it underground.
The Dark City begins by introducing the reader to two hunted Keepers. Galen is the master, though his powers have been lost in an accident with a relic. Raffi is his young apprentice, who must now step up his abilities if he and Galen are to succeed in their quest to enter the dark city of Tasceron, where Galen believes he can find a cure — so long as they can survive the city itself, which is filled with members of the Watch, monsters, and dangers from the long-ago past. On their way they are joined by Carys, a young female member of the Watch carrying her own secrets and one of the Sekoi, the native race of the world.
The Dark City is a fast, mostly gripping read. It bleeds tension throughout nearly the entire novel, beginning with the rocky relationship between Galen and Raffi, one that has only recently grown worse as Galen takes out his frustration at his loss of power on his young apprentice. Carys’ arrival, and Galen’s suspicious attitude towards her, ratchets up the interpersonal tension more, and then the arrival of the Sekoi does the same. We end up with four people traveling together, some of whom trust some of the others, some of whom seemingly trust none of the others. And the reader is well aware that there are good reasons for mistrust among all of them. While the plot moves along smoothly and quickly, with a few suspenseful scenes, this underlying character-driven tension is perhaps the best part of the book as it runs constantly throughout and drives much of the action.
The characters are well and concisely drawn, for the most part. Carys’ characterization is especially strong and is helped by Fisher’s choice of telling part of Carys’ story in her own voice through a journal. Determined, clever, wry, independent, she is an extremely likable character and the book really comes alive when she is on stage. She, more than the others, grows and changes throughout the novel, and if the growth is a bit predictable, it is no less enjoyable. Raffi is a bit static through much of the novel (not a complaint, merely an observation), but he does develop as time goes on, if more slowly and in smaller steps than Carys. By the end it is clear his experiences and Carys have had a major impact on him, something I assume continues in the second book. The Sekoi gets less page time but is an intriguing character due to his unclear motivations and the general mystery surrounding his race.
The backstory behind the contemporary action works quite well — how the Maker’s arrival from space, their technologies, and their subsequent “fall” were transformed into myth (the book is interspersed with snippets of these myths). It has a bit of feel of Anne McCaffrey’s Pern — that movement from science to “magic” over long periods of time. And for old-timers, it even had a bit of a feel of Andre Norton to it along those same lines. The magic of the Keepers is a bit fuzzy, but I’m hoping it gets clarified as the series continues.
I sped through The Dark City easily, enjoying it every step of the way, and I’m looking forward quite a bit to reading the next three. And since all four are out, I can do that without waiting years in between each installment — another plus. Highly recommended.