Creature Court Trilogy, Book 2
Reviewed by Lorraine Cormack
DISCLAIMER: Lorraine Cormack is a judge for the Aurealis Awards. This review is the personal opinion of the writer, and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of any judging panel, the judging coordinator or the Aurealis Awards management team.
The Shattered City is a book that surprised me; my primary memory of Roberts’ work was her early novels. These were humorous fantasy, a difficult genre to master, and contained a few mis-steps from a then beginner writer. The Shattered City is a different kettle of fish; although extremely original, it fits the more general “fantasy” mould. Importantly, it is also an excellent book from a writer who seems to have found her stride and settled into it.
Velody is a dressmaker in the city of Aufleur, and as this novel opens she is trying to consolidate her position as Power and Majesty of the Creature Court. The Court is a group of … people, perhaps; each can turn into an animal or animals, and each has a kind of magical power known as animor. At night they wage a violent ongoing battle against the night, which seems determined to destroy Aufleur. And although they are nominally united in this struggle, Velody knows all too well that their alliances are unsteady and that most, if not all, have other agendas to pursue.
Ashiol is a member of the Court, but also the cousin of the Duchessa who rules Aufleur in the daylight hours. The Daytime people are ignorant of what goes on at night, but they have nevertheless developed rituals and festivals which provide essential support to the Creature Court. But they don’t know that these festivals are anything other than frivolous, or meaningless religious rituals – until one is cancelled and it begins to seem that the Daytime people will become abruptly aware of the Night when they’re all massacred. Ashiol must straddle his two worlds to help, but he is not, perhaps, entirely sane.
Roberts draws us into a world of deceit and intrigue, of people fighting their destiny or doing their best to fulfill it. Two worlds co-exist, and neither is simple or particularly welcoming when seen through the eyes of Velody and her companions. And yet Roberts brings the reader to care deeply about both worlds.
This is volume two of a series, and I haven’t read volume one. That made the first few chapters a little disorienting, as there were clearly gaps in my knowledge of who characters were, what was going on, and why. However, the plot and characterisation was strong enough that before too long I didn’t care much. There remained a nagging sense of something I was missing (sometimes very obviously specific pieces of information) but I was interested enough in both events and characters to be able to overlook this and immerse myself in the novel. It does also mean that there are some enormous loose ends at the end of the novel – in fact, much of the story is not resolved. There is clearly at least one more volume to come. This is a strong novel but it does not fully stand by itself; many readers will be unconcerned by this as they’ll be intrigued enough to want to read more.
The Shattered City is an atmospheric novel, which relies in part on strong worldbuilding for its success. Roberts uses some clichés of fantasy worlds to provide a sense of basic familiarity (for example, a pseudo medieval world, a noble class) but overlays that with a baroque, original world that will quickly draw you in with its intriguing strangeness. The Creature Court is an original creation, although it derives some inspiration perhaps from other shapeshifter stories. However, the various creatures, the politics of their Court, the ongoing struggle the Court is engaged in with the night sky – all add up to a creation that feels unique.
There are a couple of problems with the novel, but in all honesty these could also be the result of the fact that I haven’t read volume one. My major reservation, for example, is that for at least half the novel there appeared to be no compelling reason for the Creature Court to engage in the terrible battles at night. If the city rebuilds itself each morning, with no damage to see, and the inhabitants are unaware … why bother? But halfway through the novel we’re given two very good reasons for the Creature Courts’ behaviour. It may be that this is indeed a flaw, and Roberts failed to deliver this vital information at a more appropriate time, writing as though we readers were aware of something that all the characters knew but didn’t voice. Or it may be that this was explained at length in the first volume.
Similarly, I felt that the characterisation was at times a little uneven. Some characters were drawn fully, and very vividly, while others seemed unintentionally more sketchy. It may be that this is again a function of a second volume, and that some of those characters were more fully explored in volume one. Or it may simply be a weakness. I suspect perhaps a little of both; characterisation was sometimes weak in Roberts’ earlier work and there are some hints she may still struggle a little with this. For example, there is a paragraph and a half about one character which is repeated word for word, some chapters apart; I had the sense of an author so focused on getting her character across that she was unaware of her own repetition.
However, these are relatively minor criticisms of a book that is engrossing, original, and memorable. Most readers will find themselves quickly drawn into the haunting story of the City of Aufleur and its inhabitants, and in particular the underground not-quite-night creatures who protect the Daytime people. Many will be waiting eagerly for the next instalment. I’m inclined to suggest that it may be a series worth starting from the beginning; but if you choose to pick up the series here, with volume two, you still won’t be disappointed.