Friday, May 20, 2016

Battle of the 2015 Books, Bracket One, First Round :: Towers Fall by Karina Sumner-Smith vs. The Just City by Jo Walton

The eighth and last first round match in Bracket One of the Battle of the 2015 Books features Towers Fall by Karina Sumner-Smith taking on The Just City by Jo Walton. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

Towers Fall: Talos Press, November 2015, 386 pages, cover images by Thinkstock. Karina Sumner-Smith was nominated for a Nebula Award in 2007 for her short story "An End to All Things." Towers Fall is the third volume in the Towers Trilogy, after Radiant and Defiant.

The Towers Trilogy is set in a world of extreme social stratification. The elites live in floating towers clustered around a "Central Spire," while the downtrodden live on the ground in the Lower City. Among the poor folks in the Lower City is our young heroine Xhea, who has various magical abilities including the power to talk to ghosts, particularly her ghost companion Shai. Through her magical senses, Xhea has realized that a supernatural being has come to life underneath the Lower City. It seems in the prior books, there was a failed attempt to lift a new tower into the sky. When the tower came crashing down, Xhea persuaded the living Lower City to catch it and prevent utter disaster. This has alerted the Central Spire to the presence of the being under the Lower City and to Xhea. In the opening 25 pages of Towers Fall, the Central Spire orders all the inhabitants of the Lower City to leave, presumably so they can find this supernatural entity, and they send a ghost to place a spell on Xhea that seems designed to strip away her powers.

The Just City: Tor, January 2015, 364 pages, cover art by Raphael. Jo Walton won a Hugo and Nebula for her novel Among Others, and has also won a World Fantasy Award, a British Fantasy Award, and a Tiptree Award. The Just City is the first book in a series. The second volume, The Philosopher Kings was published in June 2015. The third book, Necessity is due out in July 2016.

The Just City is set in a shining city created by the goddess Pallas Athene, modeled after Plato's Republic. Having no difficulty jumping about time, she decides to locate the city near Atlantis before its fall (which we learn will be triggered by a volcanic eruption). The first 25 pages consist of first-person chapters from the point of view of Apollo, who decides to become mortal to experience this city; a young girl named Simmea who was rescued from slavery in the distant past and brought to the city; and another girl Maia, who wants to be a scholar but finds no such opportunity in 19th Century England, so prays to Athene for the chance to live in Plato's Republic, and ta-da!

The Battle: We have two fantasy novels doing battle, each with a very different tone. Towers Fall arguably fits in the current dystopian subgenre, while The Just City is more of a utopian story.

Towers Fall starts with the disadvantage of being the third book in a trilogy. But Karina Sumner-Smith does a nice job of catching us up in the story without letting the summaries slow down the pace of the narrative. I feel like I have gotten a good sense of the story so far, and yet things have already happened, including the shocking announcement that everyone must evacuate the Lower City and an attack on Xhea and her magical abilities. It's actually The Just City which has the slower pace so far. We've met some of the characters and learned their backgrounds, but have yet to get much sense of Pallas Athene's eponymous city.

But as I've noted before in the Battle of the Books, it isn't always action that pulls me into the opening passages of a novel. While Sumner-Smith opens Towers Fall capably enough, the story has yet to grab me. After 25 pages, I don't feel like I've gotten much sense of the main characters Xhea and Shai. I like the notion that the entity under the Lower City was created as an unintended byproduct of dark magic being dumped by the towers. And yet the blatant social stratification in the story feels heavy-handed to me, especially since the motif is getting overused lately:
It was clear that the Spire cared little for the people on the ground, nor for how those people might suffer as a result of the dark magic poured down upon them, night after night. The Spire did not care that Lower City dwellers' own magic was thin and weak; that they died young, or sickened frequently, or were poisoned by the very walls around them, the ground beneath their feet.
Star Trek gave this same scenario, with the privileged living in the clouds, a more even-handed treatment fifty years ago.

Meanwhile, I already feel a connection to the three viewpoint characters in The Just City, each of whom has a distinctive voice. Jo Walton's dry wit is on display. And while the story tells of the attempt to create a utopian society, Walton has already signaled from the first page of Simmea's narrative that such lofty goals can generate unintended consequences:
When I came to the Just City I was eleven years old. I came there from the slave market of Smyrna, where I was purchased for that purpose by some of the masters. It is hard to say for sure whether this event was fortunate or unfortunate. Certainly having my chains struck off and being taken to the Just City to be educated in music and gymnastics and philosophy was by far the best fate I might have hoped for once I stood in that slave market. But I had heard the men who raided our village saying they were especially seeking children of about ten years of age. The masters visited the market at the same time every year to buy children, and they had created a demand. Without that demand I might have grown up in the Delta and lived the life the gods had laid out before me.
After reading only 25 pages into The Just City, I am already absorbed and anxious to read more.

THE WINNER: The Just City by Jo Walton

The Just City advances to the second round to face Letters to Zell by Camille Griep.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

No comments: