The Drowning City. Home to exiles and expatriates, pirates and smugglers. And violent revolutionaries who will stop at nothing to overthrow the corrupt Imperial government.
For Isyllt Iskaldur, necromancer and spy, the brewing revolution is a chance to prove herself to her crown. All she has to do is find and finance the revolutionaries, and help topple the palaces of Symir. But she is torn between her new friends and her duties, and the longer she stays in this monsoon-drenched city, the more intrigue she uncovers – even the dead are plotting.
As the waters rise and the dams crack, Isyllt must choose between her mission and the city she came to save.
I read The Drowning City some years ago, around the time it came out in 2009; Downum’s novels then dropped a bit out of my radar, until my attention was drawn back to them in part by panels at Nineworlds and LonCon. So, knowing it also comes with Bear’s stamp of approval, I went back to it…
The Drowning City is in some ways a novel very much of its time, while in other ways being a novel forty years after its time. The city of Symir is clearly very much influenced by New Orleans, and the novel by Katrina, with its river, charms everywhere, carnival, and swampy atmosphere; and yet at the same time it feels very much like a Vietnam-era novel, albeit with its hero cast in the role of a Soviet, rather than American, agent. The plot does nothing to undermine this; with guerilla resistance to occupying imperial forces split into various factions, some more extreme than others and willing to murder those less extreme than, let alone opposed to, themselves, and who blend into the population, and with massacres of civilian villages by the imperialist troops, there are resonances with modern Middle Eastern invasions but far stronger ones, especially with the Great Game politicking going on and the worldbuilding with South-East Asian influences, with Vietnam. Indeed, the Downum presses these themes home so much and so frequently that one begins to wish for a different war, a different inspiration; it feels like a book, a history, we’ve all seen before.
Of course, that’s not all this novel is; The Drowning City actually has an awful lot going on, even if Downum is rooting it largely in that seemingly-Vietnamesque scenario. There are multiple levels of politicking, with the revolutionaries and Isyllt, between different revolutionary factions, within revolutionary factions, and between Isyllt and her opposite Imperial number. Some of these also involve romances and personal relationships, others personal emnities, and the tangled mess of relationships is portrayed very effectively and strongly tied into the plot in a very powerful way, meaning this isn’t a romance-and-an-intrigue, it’s an intrigue-romance or romance-intrigue. The two are, fundamentally, inseparable and support each other excellently, with the same kind of approach as the better class of spy thriller.
The characters are really what makes Downum stand out from the crowd though; Isyllt, her necromancer, recovering from a heartbreak and by the end of the novel also carrying disability with her; Xinai, an exile returned home to join the revolution; Adam, Xinai’s partner and Isyllt’s bodyguard, pragmatic and with torn loyalties; Zhirin, the young apprentice with ideals and a power greater than she knows; Asherin, the Imperial agent and something more besides… The Drowning City refuses to make any character simple, or monolayered; everyone has multiple things going on at the same time, multiple strands of influence behind their actions, multiple strands of plot they are involved in. It’s an excellent piece of writing, especially as the voices are kept distinct; while the habit of naming a character rapidly when switching to their viewpoint is a little frustrating at times, given the clear demarkation of voice and role in the narrative, the switching itself is a very effective and interesting approach to giving us multiple angles on the same actions.
I said this novel felt both forty years late and very much of its time; but The Drowning City also, in some ways, feels timeless, in what it says about the human heart, about imperialism and resistance to empire, about youth and idealism, and more. Downum’s fantasy isn’t the most original thing out there, but it is good, and I commend it to you.