Talking Books: The Drowning City by Amanda Downum

This one caught my eye because of Isyllt, the heroine. As my current work in progress involves a necromancer (albeit in a different time period), I was curious to see Downum’s take on “The Dark Art.”

Isyllt is both a necromancer and spy for the nation of Selafai, hoping to keep the expansionistic Assari Empire in check by fueling a growing insurgency in the Sivahra jungles. Accompanied by her body guards Adam and Xinai, she begins to infiltrate the port city of Symir seeking out contacts within the rebel factions.

The book doesn’t utilize the typical fantasy trappings, instead using South-Asian cultures as a core influence. In addition, black powder weapons are used in limited form, just enough to make that particular element stand out. I caught one or two modernisms, but they’re easily overlooked due to the atypical setting. Symir comes across as an analogue of Venice with it’s canals and it’s flooding or sinking, but the Far Eastern touch makes it unique. The world-building is effective, enough “neat stuff” is presented without overwhelming the reader.

One aspect of the magic used here is the focus on gemstones. They’re mined not only for material value but also for magical potency. One thing I liked was that diamonds were a favorite among necromancers for ability to trap the souls of the dead. More interesting was the cultural stigma tied to what we would consider the most precious of stones. It caught my attention and like a lot of the “little things” it kept me interested and turning pages.

Isyllt is a respectable character — no novice, no damsel in distress here. She’s not the type of heroine that goes through the novel unscathed either. One moment that impressed me in particular is where an exhausted Isyllt catches this black powder grenade in a wounded hand and rusts the shell to powder before the fuse sets it off. It was a scene that I could easily visualize and the writing flowed as smooth as the action that transpired in my mind’s eye.

On the downside, she did seem to get lost in the flow of events. I don’t know I can find that a fault of the character — she’s not passive. It took me some time to realize that a lot was taking place in this novel. Isyllt gets swept with the tide, to use an apt metaphor, and the only problem I can see is that in the end she gets something of what she wants, but it’s not entirely by her hand. It’s about the only real flaw I can cite in the book, but how things transpire helps overcome that. One of the secondary characters went from minor to important, and I can’t tell how organic that was because of how the greater action was presented. Part of the problem might have been my ability to follow the names of various characters — they don’t come across as Scrabble draws, but the Asian influence did tend to muddy the waters some.

Despite that I’m still interested enough to continue reading “The Necromancer Chronicles.” This is an impressive novel, willing to look at the greys of the world without being overbearing.


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