I don’t know how to properly express the depth of my love for this extraordinary, brilliant book. It’s a book of revolutions and subversions, of challenging the status quo and thinking, really thinking about who gets to be a hero, and who deserves our sympathy and, most of all, who we should strive to be. Which last, in the hands of any other writer, would veer on the edge of moralizing claptrap. But J. P. Oakes gets to the heart of it here, telling us to try our hardest even if we can be
not satisfied, but at peace with the little [we have] done, with the knowledge that others will still be able to carry on the fight.
God, this book made me cry and laugh and upended all my expectations of what fantasy fiction can do. Because, in addition to being a really terrific industrial fantasy novel, set on a single night of upheaval and rebellion, it’s also a clever as hell tale of a drug heist gone awry and how that winds up signifying politically, as various factions chase down what the author slyly implies in the beginning is a mere McGuffin (mild spoiler: it’s not.)
But let’s begin with the setting. Decades past, the goblin tribes united under the banner of Mab and swept south from their ancestral lands, subjugating the various fae in their path. Triumphant, they built the Iron City, a vast metropolis ruled by the five Goblin Houses and encircled entirely by an iron wall that not only cuts their subject fae off from magic but also infects the fae with sickness. The underclass has tried to rebel but each uprising has been quashed. Many fae turn to Dust, a drug that evokes just a little bit of their gone-away magic, in order to escape their increasingly nightmarish reality. But hope is not an ember easily extinguished, and on this one night, various goblins and fae from all strata of society will be drawn together in a web of magic and mayhem to fight, for the city or for themselves and sometimes for both at once.
Our point-of-view characters include Jag, a young goblin heiress fascinated with the fae and their artistry; her half-sister and bodyguard Sil; Edwyll, an idealistic fae artist searching for a patron; Knull, his cynical drug-dealing older brother; Bee, the thoughtful young member of the Fae Liberation Front; Skart, the de facto leader of the revolution, and Granny Spregg, the scheming former head of the goblin House Spreggan. As alliances form and shift, as betrayals and reversals rend and kill, these seven show us the full picture of a night that will change them all and the Iron City forever.
While the genre-blending and split-person POV over the course of one night showcased here are unusual but hardly unique forms of modern narrative, the first real innovation of this terrific book is the complete upending of the colonial power dynamic. Most fantasy settings portray the ruling class as being beautiful and intelligent — an often unconscious buy-in to the colonial mentality of privilege — but in this city, the ones in charge are seen to be merely (and realistically) the most ruthless and powerful, with any physical and mental advantages less innate than the natural result of the good nutrition, healthcare and time for education they hoard for themselves and routinely deny their subjects. The collective is presented as the truest form of democracy, with the aim being union and understanding, not othering and ostracization. And the end result of any moral revolution, this book stresses, is to try to keep making things better for everyone, one small step at a time, to not buy into the idea that despair is the only choice. Each person who keeps trying is a hero. It’s a beautiful lesson amidst all the chaos and blood and rubble of a city at war, one that’s easy to take into our everyday, hopefully far less violent lives.
Even if you’re not into the thoughtful political and ethical themes, there’s no denying that City Of Iron And Dust is a wildly entertaining story with a surprising range and depth to its characters, main or supporting. I loved this book. You should read it.
City Of Iron And Dust by J.P. Oakes was published yesterday July 6 2021 by Titan Books and is available from all good booksellers, including