City on Fire

by Walter Jon Williams

Cover image

Series: Metropolitan #2
Publisher: HarperPrism
Copyright: 1997
Printing: January 1998
ISBN: 0-06-105442-9
Format: Mass market
Pages: 560

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City on Fire is a direct sequel to Metropolitan, which sets the scene and background and introduces the major characters. I read it a couple of years after reading Metropolitan and didn't have trouble coming up to speed, but that's partly because the previous book left a lasting impression. Reading out of order is possible, but not ideal.

Be warned that one cannot talk about the theme of City of Fire without giving away the general direction of Metropolitan's ending. It's not particularly surprising, but if you want to avoid any spoilers, you probably want to stop reading here.

In Metropolitan, Williams uses a sudden and abrupt change of social class for much of its dramatic tension. In this continuation of the story, that change still lingers in Aiah's background, but she's become more comfortable, or at least familiar with being part of the ruling class. The dramatic, driving forces of revolution passed, and now comes the hard work of what to do afterwards. Williams maintains the dynamic intrigues of power, but mixes in the problems of bureaucracy, trust, and balancing required in an operating government.

Even more than Metropolitan, City of Fire is a novel about the politics and governments of cities, tribes, and corporations. William's future combines all three into a fascinating amalgam, populating a world of near-solid city with a myriad of squabbling city-states, fragile regional alliances, and very long political histories. The intrigues of the novel center around Constantine: the dynamic revolutionary, full of personal charisma and energy, single-mindedly pursuing a grand vision of a different, fairer type of government and making ruthless practical decisions along the way. Williams avoids both simple triumph and clear morality, showing Constantine at times as a dangerous force of nature or a ruthless ideologue. You root for him in messy civil wars, but not without being afraid of what he's capable of.

Besides expanding the political chaos and maneuvering, Williams reaches deeper into the culture of his world. Caraqui has a large underclass of twisted, genetically-altered near-humans who become coworkers and underworld contact points for Aiah, reintroducing the dynamic of racial discrimination partly lost through Aiah's political advancement. The entertainment industry of William's far-future world plays an increased role, and Aiah learns something about living a role. And the Shield that covers the Earth and prevents any contact with the orbital Ascended becomes more of a plot point, mingling with a bizarre and increasingly fascinating religious organization known as the Dreaming Sisters.

The element that holds all of these threads together and turns City of Fire into a fascinating and engrossing novel is the character of Aiah, a plasm bureaucrat from a culture of gypsy-like tricksters who has reached the heights of power mostly through her association with Constantine. She isn't the typical hyper-compentent SF hero, even with her occasional suspenseful forays into a war-torn city. She's not physically brave. She's curious, organized, and solves problems by breaking them into pieces and making lists. It's a nice change of pace from the typical action-driven novel provided that the story keeps that interesting, and Williams finds enough ways to add action so that the novel doesn't take place entirely in conference rooms. He also manages to fill the novel with tough decisions and interesting conflict that didn't just make me want to strangle people, which is unusual for a novel that's mostly about politics.

Aiah is a great character in part because she's plausibly flawed and in part because she's not an expert in everything she runs into. There's still some wish-fulfillment in her construction of a mostly corruption-free agency (helped by magic mind probe technology), but on the whole this is a political world that I can believe in. You want to root for the revolutionaries who are trying to make the world better, but you cringe at some of their actions and are left uncomfortable throughout by the hard choices. It's a tough balancing act for the writer, and I thought Williams pulled it off admirably well.

Unfortunately, the largest flaw is the ending: this is clearly the middle book of an unadvertised trilogy, and a trilogy for which the third book does not exist (at least yet). It reaches an adequate conclusion of its own, but several major plot threads are left entirely unresolved. Apparently the third book is tangled in publisher problems and will require getting the rights back from the previous publisher, and it's unclear when that will happen. In the meantime, I think the current two books are worth reading for themselves, but be prepared to be left unsatisfied.

City on Fire takes the relatively realistic politics of Metropolitan and improves on it, making the problems harder and the morality more difficult while broadening the view of the universe background. Once the trilogy (or more) is complete, I can recommend it whole-heartedly; right now, still recommended if you can tolerate an incomplete story.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2008-10-12

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