A new book by Adrian Tchaikovsky is always to be welcomed. He’s one of the most consistently praised SFF authors working in the UK at the moment. He’s also one of the most prolific. A new tome, the size of a house brick, seems to turn up every few months. His latest book, City of Last Chances, is not quite as big as some of the work he produces, and would also be the first Tchaikovksy fantasy I have read. I couldn’t wait to dive in!
What Is City of Last Chances?
Ilmar is a city occupied. The Palaseen have been conquering the world and in their wake, they set about eroding local customs and traditions. They feel very much like the Empire in Star Wars (particularly as displayed in Andor). Towering bureaucracies, that crush the local populace be demanding unswerving fealty to a homogenizing and oppressive set of laws.
Being a fantasy city, Ilmar has a number of more unusual local customs and practices that these laws are designed to stamp out. Magic, of a sort, exists and there’s a no-go area of the city filled with wraith-like creatures that send normal humans mad. Elsewhere, demons carry out feats of engineering; forced to work thanks to infernal legal pacts.
The city has a forest, through which you can travel to other lands, but that will kill you if you don’t have the right wards of protection. When a high-ranking member of the Palaseen occupying government enters the forest, only to discover that his ward has been stolen, a powder-keg of trouble is set ablaze. The stealing of the ward condemned Sage-Archivist Ochelby to a grisly death. Somebody is going to pay.
City of Last Chances is a patchwork novel told from many different points of view. Each person telling the story has a stake in the game; had something to do, either directly or incidentally, with the theft of the ward. What develops is a multilayered story of an oppressed city regaining its identity. Of its protagonists, some want rebellion, some want money, others want fame, whilst some yearn for a quiet life. One soldier just wants to find his wife.
Why Read City of Last Chances?
I must confess I almost gave up on City of Last Chances. Life is busy in December and reading needs to be effortless. Not so with this book. It does require that you work at it. To be honest had I not known this was a book by Adrian Tchaikovsky, I probably would have stopped reading. Yet, a writer of such pedigree commands some loyalty. From previous outings, I knew there would be many rich layers to peel back as I descended through the novel.
And so it was.
I also have to concede that I stopped reading the introductory paragraphs at the beginning of each chapter. These were written in a single, somewhat arch voice, from an omnipotent perspective, but they both irritated and confused me. I found it harder to discern the character voices, as I always had to jump past this “other” voice first. I can’t comment on what I missed from reading the book this way, but doing so helped me find my way into the meat of the novel.
Like much of Tchaikovsky’s work (or at least the small corner that I have read) there is lots of social commentary in City of Last Chances. The fascism of the Pallaseen Occupation has parallels with modern right-wing governance. The city of Illmar is an intriguing creation, with multiple facets, many of which subvert common genre tropes. This can be discomfiting as you have to reassess your expectations and is possibly what stopped me from immediately accessing the book.
Once I had found my way into the book, I was treated to a fractured picture of intrigue. Some of this was by the design of the novel’s protagonists, some was due to opportunities grabbed, and other tiles were placed as a result of blind luck. Due to the mosaic nature of the novel, it was tricky to build up an overall understanding of where we were heading, except, we hoped, to insurrection.
As more and more tiles fell into place, and the story pulls back to reveal the whole of the fresco, I discovered that once again Tchaikovksy had treated me to a clever storyline that subverted expectations and rewarded my loyalty for sticking with the book. Overall, the novel gives an impression of something like Ghormengast, more recently it reminded me of Andrew Caldecott’s ‘Rotherweird’ series. Books that confused me at first, but ultimately, delighted.
If you would like to pick up a copy of City of Last Chances you can do so here, in the US, and here, in the UK. (The U.S. release date is May 2023).
Disclosure: I received a copy of the book in order to write this review.