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November 20, 2012

Review – The Last City by Nina D’Aleo

Filed under: books of 2012,books read,reviewage,women writers challenge 2012 — lexifab @ 10:26 pm

It’s been a while since I reviewed something for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012, so I will take a few quick minutes out to mention a novel I picked up as part of a giveaway from Momentum Books.

The Last City by Nina D’Aleo is one of the first speculative releases from Momentum (Pan MacMillan Australia’s digital-only imprint). My copy came as a free promotion from the Amazon Kindle store.

The Last City is a strange melange of cop procedural, survivalist thriller and epic fantasy – in fact, the book can be divided into three parts that roughly correspond with those descriptors. It’s set in a vast, crowded, intensely stratified – physically, economically and culturally – megatropolis called Scorpia, the nominal last city on an apparently arid world. The story concerns a squadron of elite police investigators called the Oscuri trackers, led by the pleasingly pulpishly-alliterative Commander Copernicus Kane. As the story begins the Oscuri, including first-day-on-the-job rookie Silho Brabel and socially-awkward genius Eli Anklebiter, are investigating a gruesome, ritualistic multiple murder. As is so often the way of things, that crime leads inexorably to gang wars, royal intrigues, demon infestations, revolutionary uprisings and horrors from beyond the dawn of time.

D’Aleo’s worldbuilding is compelling and rich, if occasionally somewhat patchy. The population of her world of Aquais are all descendents of some form of genetic splicing (whether magic, superscience or spirit-binding was the original cause is unclear, though I would bet good money that the author has detailed notes). These various bloodlines bestow everything from physical and behavioural attributes to magical superpowers – lion-breeds socialise in prides, cobra-breeds have fangs and spit venom, and so on. Scorpia comes across as a magical reflection, albeit a couple of orders of magnitude more populous, of Bladerunner’s LA – multicultural but ghettoised, steeped in history and habitual cultural behaviours. Much of this we see from a somewhat jaded cop’s perspective – the story does not touch on much of day to day life for the presumed millions of ordinary Scorpians.

I had a few problems in reading The Last City, most of which would probably not bother other readers. The story is presented from multiple points of view, and virtually every character with any prominence in the story is tormented with the need to protect a dark secret from their past. Some of these hidden secrets forge improbable connections between the main characters and the rest are plot-essential linkages to a rising demonic menace. The tight interconnectedness of the leads felt out of place against the sprawling urban chaos of the setting.

The balance of the pacing is a bit strange. The early investigation scenes are painstaking and methodical to a frustrating degree, and the momentum gathers very slowly as the demonic shenanigans get rolling. The final act, by comparison, is full of exhilarating and desperate action. I found my perserverance rewarded with the ending, but it was only obstinacy on my part that got me to that point. I also had trouble identifying with several of the characters for much of the story, and it was only towards the final third – when the epic threat has fully manifested and the whole world is at stake – that I felt most of them started to kick into gear.

Overall I thought The Last City was a good read that never quite made it to a great read for me. It’s inventive and thoughtful but the pace is deliberate and some of the characters wear their plot-essentialism a little too close to the surface for me. That said, once the setup is out of the way and the action gets started, it’s a satisfying epic technomagical thriller.

1 Comment »

  1. […] The Last City by Nina D’Aleo appeared first in Apple’s Editor’s Choice SFF picks (review from Dave Versace); […]

    Pingback by 2012 AWW Challenge Speculative Fiction Wrap-up « Australian Women Writers Challenge — January 4, 2013 @ 12:06 pm

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