As I mentioned in my June TBR post, this month I am participating in the #ReadersWithoutBorders readathon organised by @JDRoberts_SFF over at The Worlds of Sci-fi & Fantasy, raising money for Medecins Sans Frontieres / Doctors Without Borders (MSF). Check out his event post to find out how you can participate, or to donate to the Just Giving page. You’ll even go in the running for one of the free books that are up for grabs!
My readathon goal is to read all of the Hugo Award 2020 finalists for best novel and best novella. I may have cheated a little by starting this in May, however I did also manage to squeeze in a review of debut novel Stormblood, mostly because I realised too late that the publish date was 4th June and *not* 4th July.
Last year I had the privilege of attending a talk with Charlie Jane Anders and Annalee Newitz (probably the coolest couple ever) hosted by the London Post-Apocalyptic Bookclub, so I wanted to kick off my #ReadersWithoutBorders posts with Anders’ The City in the Middle of the Night.
“This whole town is engineered to make you feel like you’re always running out of time.”
On a tidally locked planet where one hemisphere lies in permanent darkness and the other is scorched by a too bright star, humans have established a tenuous existence in the twilit strip between two extremes. Sophie is a university student from Xiosphant, a city that has compensated for the absence of day and night with Stepford-precise timekeeping. After mixing with a crowd of student revolutionists, Sophie encounters trouble with authorities and is banished from the city, only to return in secret with the help of an unlikely ally from the Night. As tension in Xiosphant grows under the weight of relentless routine, Sophie’s quiet existence is compromised by a group of strangers who pull her into a journey that will change the course of history.
The City in the Middle of the Night doesn’t read like a typical sci-fi novel. Aside for some creative far-future linguistics there are no lasers, hydrators, fabbers or black holes to worry about, making it a great pick for readers who would normally shy away from genre fiction, or for those who enjoy sci-fi but are turned off by excessive space-jargon.
With this unique setting of environmental extremes I had anticipated this book to be fast-paced action, something like The Chronicles of Riddick (minus the hyper-masculinity). Instead, Anders plops humans into eternal dusk and experiments with how this would shape a society. She has some fascinating ideas and ruminates on the concept and perception of time, memory, tribalism, and even meditation. That’s not to say that this book is dry, as there is plenty of action, booze, swashbuckling and alien megafauna.
After the initial chapters I found the writing style a little inconsistent tonally, making it difficult for me to connect with the story and characters. I didn’t feel overly invested in the relationship betwen Sophie and Bianca despite a lot going on, with Sophie’s secret romantic feelings and their unresolved conflict. Perhaps it was not intended to be a relatable dynamic that they shared, or perhaps I just couldn’t relate to it from my own experiences.
“To join with others to shape a future is the holiest act.”
This being said, Anders really hits her stride in the last 100 pages of the book, which were equal parts disturbing and heart-wrenching. As her prose becomes notably more visual her brilliant imagination shines through, and a lot of the story comes together in a satisfying way. If the middle of this book had been edited down, or if more time was spent on the ideas that Anders explores towards the end, it would have been a 4 or 5 star read for me. As it stands, despite my uncertainty about the writing style I recommend you give this book a read, if not just to experience the final chapters.
In terms of concept The City in the Middle of the Night is unique and stands apart from other books I’ve read, so it’s difficult to compare it to similar stories. If you enjoyed the pacing and bio-weirdness of The Stars are Legion, the alien evolution in Children of Time or the space-punk of Becky Chambers, this book may be up your street.
As a side note, I think this is the first time I’ve ever read a book where a main character suffers from anxiety, and I think it’s pretty cool that this was handled so realistically.