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Feminist Killjoy. Badly Behaving Bookliker. Writer and reader of all things speculative. 

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The Drowning City

The Drowning City - Amanda Downum I've seen some authors complain when reviewers use the phrase "I really wanted to love this". Surely, they insist, you want to love every book you read. They obviously don't know my Goodreads friends. I think they're missing the point.There's a difference between picking up a book, reading the blurb, and figuring you should enjoy it, and encountering a book that has elements that make you really wish you could love it. For me, The Drowning City was the latter. I wanted to love it with all my heart, because it's not a white, straight male-centric, gutless pseudo-Europe crapsack book. I wanted to love it because the world building is lovely. Symir blends shades of Asia and Egypt, with much of its own unique flavor. When the characters first arrived in Symir, I was reminded of the first time I reached Kurast (a jungle city) while playing Diablo 2. Of course, Symir is not a ruin like Kurast, but it evoked the same sense of the eerie and exotic. It's a world inhabited by spirits and dark, ancient magic, and it really feels that way. Yet it manages this without being as dark and heavy as so many books are today.I also wanted to love it because the prose is strong. I'm sure a lot of readers will find it plain, but that's because one of Downum's strengths is her subtlety. She doesn't throw lots of poetry or lyricism in your face, doesn't flower up her metaphors, yet her work is still deliciously evocative in very subtle ways. Many writers stick to visual feedback only, whereas Downum used all five senses to advantage. I could taste and smell the brininess and dampness of Symir. Also, her prose is quick and easy to read, and unlike so much high fantasy these days, the book is not 300-500 pages longer than it needs to be. Unfortunately, when it comes to story and characters, The Drowning City lacks strength. It's told from three third person points of view, none of which begin with any sort of distinction to them. Zhirin develops the most and is far and away my favorite character. Xinai's storyline is painfully predictable. And Isyllt is uninteresting and bland. The blurb talks about the intrigues she uncovers, but mainly Isyllt hangs around being a very unscary necromancer and being freaked about being assassinated, while everyone else uncovers what's going on. Considering how many strong women there are in the book, it's baffling that Isllyt is at best a reactive character, but largely a passive (and occasionally a bit stupid) one. Downum admits in an interview that Isyllt is an old favorite revived from another project, and that's a dangerous proposition. You risk having a character that is a much better concept in your head and your affections than on paper.Strangely, there were a couple of secondary male characters that I would have loved to read the points of view of, because they managed to be intriguing and well-developed despite their smaller rolls.The story is problematic too. I wouldn't mind the simplicity of it, but it could often be hard to follow what was going on. Sometimes it was because details would get lost in the dullness of Isyllt's voice, and I'd forget them. Downum doesn't keep hammering you over the head with details, which wasn't always an advantage. As well, scenes would jump from one to the next so quickly at times that I couldn't process what had happened in one scene before moving on to the next. It was nice not to be bogged down in the traditional high fantasy 100+ page final battle, but in other places it just left me confused. I have the second book, The Bone Palace, already. Despite some weaknesses, The Drowning City filled me with hope for the kind of writer Amanda Downum could become.