While I was reading Daniel Polansky’s latest, the novel A City Dreaming, I thought, I’ve never read something like this before. Episodic, dark and yet edged with a humour that makes you snort with laughter, the book is unlike anything I’ve come across recently in the SFF genre. Only later did I realize ‘Hey, isn’t this somewhat like Hitchhiker’s Guide meets The Magicians?’ That only served to raise my appreciation for the book. Being compared to Guide is, after all, a status that many authors would be proud to reach.
Set in New York City, A City Dreaming is easy enough to describe, in one sense. It follows the (mis)adventures of the mysterious M, a magician, or wizard, or…I’m not sure how he would describe himself, really. He’s in ‘good with the Management’, the mysterious forces that seem to regulate the ebb and flow of magic in this universe. He has a bunch of friends, from the gender bending Boy to Anglophile Pakistani Stockdale, all of whom are part of the same ‘Management’-friendly group. But rivalries divide the magicians, as can be expected in any fantasy book, with Manhattan ruled by the distant, beautiful-so-long-as-you-don’t-look-too-closely White Queen, Celisa, and Brooklyn overseen by the warm, maternal Red Queen, Abilene. While most magicians have to pick one side or the other, M somehow balances relations between the two, attending parties in a Park Avenue apartment while also tramping through the hipster neighbourhoods of Brooklyn. He’s a man about the town, our M, and he’d like to keep it that way, only the Queens, for whatever reason, seem to be trying to pin him down as they gear up for some sort of showdown.
This is urban fantasy at its best. Polansky conjures a dark, edgy New York, populating it with spectres and monsters and magical peoples, who flit in and out of the loosely strung together episodes of M’s time in the city, and yet leave an indelible impression on the reader. A character who shows up in Chapter 2 may not come back until three quarters of the way through the book, but something about the way Polansky writes makes sure you don’t forget him or her, or need refreshing. M seems to get into increasingly absurd adventures, from having to save a friend from ‘river pirates’, to getting high on a drug that puts a literal god in your body, to exorcising a ‘haunted’ house in a Brooklyn neihgbourhood, and though Polansky writes it all with the sort of ironic humour that Grossman commands so well in the Magicians trilogy, you can’t help but get sucked in. It’s a magical Portlandia, with M coming across people who might be well at home in a parody of a Humans of New York Facebook page, but here, despite that underlying humour, you can’t help but root for these characters, or wonder what they’re going to get up to.
It takes something to balance that seeming detachment along with intensive worldbuilding, and life-changing stakes, and the author’s own attitude is mirrored by his character, M. Though he’d seem to like nothing more than to disappear into a (preferably) calm and placid existence, maybe livened up by the odd woman or three, M is dragged time and again into the war zone, having to rescue friends from their own problems, or the City from the perils that routinely stalk it. He saves the world on more than one occasion in the book (that’s hardly a spoiler in fantasy, right?), and does so with a sort of ‘oh well, here we go again’ nonchalance that could have made him, int he hands of a lesser writer, an annoying or boring character. But despite his obvious skill and talent, you never stop caring about M, never write him or his friends off as people who will ‘always’ win; every time they face a trial, you care, despite the fact that everything about M seems to declare that you really shouldn’t, that this is just another day at the office for him.
I’d recommend A City Dreaming wholeheartedly. It’s deftly written, it’s hilarious, and it takes you on a journey through a crazy city, from its darkest basements to its glittering penthouses. There’s no doubt that Polansky loves the New York he’s built, and it shines forth, three (if not more) dimensional and so ‘real’, despite the magic and mysteries that bubble at its base. The writing is beautiful, the adventures original, the book as a whole a trippy, dreamy experience. Besides, how could you not want to read something in which the hero saves the world from a plague of artisanal coffee shops?