The Drowning City by Amanda Downum

October 2, 2009 at 5:04 pm (fantasy, Reviews)

Yes, an actual new book, released in September of 2009.  Go me.

Full disclosure:  the author is a friend of a good friend of mine.  Not that this would affect the content of my review – it only affected my decision to buy (vs. not buy) the book.  (Which is, incidentally, Book One of The Necromancer Chronicles.)

And actually, the indirect connection did keep me reading past being interrupted (and leaving it lying for several days) after only the first couple of pages, which fell a little flat after the opening “quotes page” (“Drowning is not so pitiful / As the attempt to rise” (Emily Dickinson), and “Hope lies in the smoldering rubble of empires” (Rage Against the Machine)).  They’re actually quite, quite appropriate, but the multi-threaded and highly political plot needs a solid base of Information that is more than adequately presented in the opening chapters.  It just doesn’t start with ‘splosions.

So, what have we got here?  Spies!  Revolutionaries!  Traitors!  Ghosts!  Mages!  A city of canals!  Carnivorous mer-people-things!  Volcanoes!  Okay, only one volcano.  But it’s an awesome volcano, and Downum clearly understands that it’s not the lava that gets most people, but the lahar.  That warms my little geographer’s heart.

The setting is, unusually, not European.  I’ll call it approximately Indochinese for its tropicality, banyan trees, and tribal native society, but I think a lot of it’s original, too.  The northern country from which a few of the characters hail may be more European-ish, but Symir is definitely not.  Marvelous, if a trifle disorienting.  Sivahra, the country where the city lies at the mouth of the river Mir, was conquered awhile back by the Assari Empire – that’s why the revolutionaries.  And why Isyllt Iskaldur, necromancer and spy for the northern country of Selafai, is there – to stir up trouble and keep the Empire too busy to invade Selafai.

It could only get more complicated from there, right?  Right.  For additional point-of-view characters there’s Zhirin, a young female mage and cautious revolutionary, and Xinai, a woman native to the country, Isyllt’s ex-co-bodyguard, and much less cautious revolutionary.  Plus sundry other revolutionaries, mages, spies, sailors, government officials loyal and traitorous, and relatives.  And of course, the ghosts.

In this world, not properly burying the dead can lead to their ghosts becoming insane and malevolent.  A necromancer like Isyllt can sometimes gather useful information from the murdered, and has a variety of other handy skills, but is perhaps most important for their ability to excorcise and capture such insane ghosts.   That’s only one of the reasons this fact about ghosts is important, though.

The author is clearly familiar with the habits of imperial colonizers and the dynamics of resistance – the clashing goals and motives of the different groups of revolutionaries, native power brokers, and Imperial representatives are entirely convincing (only the military folks didn’t get any space in this narrative, except as weapon-bearing bodies).  Don’t disbelieve what she says about what colonizers do – if you knew as much as I do about what happened in the real world, you wouldn’t be surprised.

Isyllt (and her remaining bodyguard/assistant, Adam) has her hands full with trying to contact and supply revolutionary groups, while staying unmurdered and unarrested as several encounters with the Imperial official Asheris lead her into involvement on both sides.   The arrival of her and of Xinai proves to set off an avalanche of events that very nearly destroys the city.

Yes, I don’t like to give spoiler-ridden reviews, so this is going to have to stay pretty vague.  In retrospect, I’m not completely convinced by all of the many plot twists, but while I was reading?  Almost total suspension of disbelief.

Except.  The only thing that bothered me as I read is something that … is not a problem with the book, per se.

It’s that none of the people in this book offers any doubts that women are equal in rights and potentially equal in abilities.  There are no gender-based insults.  Women are sailors, customs officials, mages, soldiers, priests, legislators, etc.  And the various female characters (including Zhirin, who’s only 18 or 19) wander around at night worried only about political violence, not the gender-based kind.  Why is it that we can only see this in an imaginary world?

Yeah, so.  Other than an occasional bobble of “that’s not believable” on that score, GREAT BOOK!



  1. Margaret Dean said,

    I proofread that book. 🙂 I liked it, too.

    • diaryofatextaddict said,

      Now there’s a job I’d like! As long as all the books are good, that is.

      • Margaret Dean said,

        Well, that’s the catch, of course…. But that makes it even more of a pleasure when you’re handed one that is really good.

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