Recommended for: anyone looking for a complex, chaotic fantasy in a revolutionary setting, a focus on female protagonists, or a non-Western European inspired fantasy with a majority of non-white characters. No real romance, no matter what the story tries to make you believe. HEA lovers, beware.
A second world fantasy in a setting inspired by Southeast Asia, The Drowning City by Amanda Downum details the efforts of Sivahrans to reclaim their country from a foreign occupation. It follows three main characters:
Isyllt is a foreign necromancer, but one with a political reason to want the rebels to succeed in gaining their independence. Unfortunately for her, the situation implodes much quicker than anyone anticipated. She ends up stuck in a city at war, with so many factions going after her she can’t keep track of them all–she’s in a really bad position, and for a little while, all she can do is survive. Luckily, she’s not completely on her own, which gives her a fighting chance.
Though she does end up as quite the punching bag. It’s not easy when everyone wants you dead. (Not that she isn’t good at finding trouble even without assassins gunning for her.) It’s kind of ironic that some of her most impressive feats are achieved when she’s already grievously injured.
As a character, she’s determined, practical, and surprisingly trusting.
Her role in the final outcome of the book is essential, but it’s more of a support role. Since she’s a newly-arrived foreigner, having her actions minimally impact Sivahra (while still being important, as she is a protagonist) makes the book more realistic. An outsider coming into a conflict like this, essentially distrusted by everyone and with no support network, shouldn’t exactly be able to lead a revolution. That would make no sense. And Isylt doesn’t try. From the onset, she intends to play a very peripheral role. When things go bad, she intends to stay alive. And when they get worse, she helps the people who helped her.
I should note that she’s pretty much the only white character in the book, which leaves more room for diversity than I usually see in fantasy.
Xinai is from a Sivahran clan which was annihilated by the Assari occupiers. She hasn’t been home to Sivahra in a long time, instead serving as a mercenary up north, but she takes a job escorting Isyllt. And finds that even with her family dead, home still calls to her. That watching her country controlled by a foreign power enrages her. And knows that blood needs to be spilt if her home is to have its freedom.
Xinai is a much more ruthless character–she’s suffered at the hands of the Assari and the Sivarhrans that have allied themselves with the Assari. Unlike Isyllt, this is very personal to her, and she’s willing to go to extremes. She isn’t the most ruthless character in the book by any means, but she’s definitely the most among the three POVs.
Zhirin is a Sivahran mage, and the most compassionate of our three POVs. She wants Sivahra to prosper as much as anyone, but she doesn’t believe the end justifies the means. She starts out as idealistic and unsure of herself, but when push comes to shove, she steps up–usually to defend or protect people.
Her compassion is a really lucky thing for Issylt, especially.
Zhirin is the least prepared of our protagonists to take on a central role in the conflicts surround her. But she accomplishes at least as much as any other character.
The three POVs exist not so much to give a full scope of the action (thought they don’t hurt), but rather to present three different viewpoints of the situation. Isyllt is accessible because like us, she’s a newcomer to this land, and she can view the conflict as an outsider. For Xinai and Zhirin, though, it’s personal. But Xinai believes that the freedom of her people trumps everything else, including their lives, whereas Zhirin believes that people’s lives–all people’s lives–come first.
The book likes to stay down to earth–everything the characters accomplish tends to be within realistic limits. Most characters get to be useful without being superheroes, which is nice, especially with how many characters influence the flow of the plot. No one person is the major driving force behind the events in the books, and instead, many characters contribute. And not everyone gets out unscathed, either.
I loved the complexity in this book. It’s a very complicated situation, and the chaos of it definitely came across–be aware that, much like the situation it represents, the story may come off as a little chaotic. I like the intricate background, and I actually prefer how the book didn’t feel the need to explain everything. No infodumps here. Another fun thing about the story is how it set up potential romances and then proceeded to demolish them. Personally, I thought it was hilarious, though I understand not everyone might think this is funny.
I’m really happy with this story, and it’s about time I read a non-European inspired fantasy that’s actually good. We need more of them. Definitely going to read the next one.