City of Diamond

by Jane Emerson

Cover image

Publisher: DAW
Copyright: March 1996
ISBN: 0-88677-704-6
Format: Mass market
Pages: 624

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The setting is deep into the star-faring future of humanity. Humans have settled many other worlds, thanks largely to technology from a race named the Curosa. There is a thriving network of settlement based around a sort of warp conduit network. But, standing apart from most human settlements, are three huge ships: the City of Opal, the City of Pearl, and the City of Diamond. Their inhabitants are devout members of the Redemptionist faith, a merging of Christian (primarily Catholic) belief and Curosa religion. Their ships are gifts from the now-departed Curosa, featuring drives unknown to the rest of humanity that allows them to ignore the normal transport network. They are meant to witness and spread their religion, but now, six centuries later, they primarily trade.

Much of this is not apparent at the start. City of Diamond opens with Adrian Mercati, chosen heir of the current dying Protector, dodging people in what seems to be an oddly-organized city. Impudent, occasionally flippant, utterly charming, and in love with danger, he inherits the position of Protector shortly after we meet him. Emerson slowly reveals more of the nature of the ship while Adrian is shocking (and charming) the nobility and the church, and consorting with demons. Or, at least, one demon: Tal, an entirely human-appearing creature except for his eyes, who the Redemptionists claim is born without a soul. Slowly, it becomes clear that he's actually the offspring of an alien and a human, a mating of species whose children cannot socialize as human and behave in ways that seem like human sociopaths. Tal is no exception, but his interests align with Adrian's for the time.

To those two viewpoint characters, Emerson adds four more: a low-rank administrator named Spider who works for Tal after Tal saved him from death by recycling, Adrian's politically-arranged bride-to-be from the rival (and even more religious) ship City of Opal, a guard from a French-descended slum on City of Opal, and a dangerously honorable and literal mercenary from an off-shoot culture of humanity that's now only a legend. This is a book that tends to sprawl. There's quite a lot going on, starting with the negotiations between City of Diamond and City of Opal to put to rest the remnants of a civil war and leading to the search for a legendary Curosa artifact on the planet they're both visiting. All of the characters have their own agendas, their own history, and their own goals, and are pursuing them in parallel and occasionally in opposition. Emerson takes the time to let all of this build.

Despite that, there is very little in this book that drags or bores, and that's due primarily to the strength of the characters. Every one of the viewpoint characters is unique, bringing a different perspective to the story, and every one of them changes and grow over the course of the story. They also play off of each other in delightful ways. This is a book that makes full use of the fact that three characters make seven character interactions. For example, Tal by himself is logical but just slightly askew, Tal seen by Spider is uncomfortable and worrisome, Tal and Adrian is a dance of mutual amusement and respect, and Tal and Keylinn finding points of commonality is just delightful. I did wish that there was a bit more Keylinn and Tal and a bit less of Spider, but once Emerson built her world, introduced her characters, and got the story moving, there aren't many weak pieces.

Part of the fun is figuring out the world background. There are almost no infodumps here; Emerson just starts telling stories of characters in the surroundings in which they find themselves, and the reader is left to piece things together from background description, the occasional explanation from one character to another, and parallels with long-standing SF tropes. It's not a puzzle book, but it is a book of where the reader is dropped as an alien into a fully-developed culture. In both that way and in the use of nobility, religion, and formal hierarchy against a starfaring backdrop, City of Diamond reminds me of the sort of classic space opera that led up to Star Wars but isn't seen as much these days.

It's also funny. I was unsurprised to discover that Emerson is a pseudonym for Doris Egan, who (in addition to writing some other SF) is an occasional writer and producer for House. The humor isn't entirely obvious at the start, although Adrian frequently provokes a grin from the start of the book, but Tal's perceptive but obliviously blunt comments become more and more fun as the book progresses, and both Iolanthe (Adrian's bride) and Keylinn (the mercenary, sort of) are a delight. I want to see more of both of them, but sadly the book ends just as they (particularly Iolanthe) are hitting their strides.

And that's the biggest problem with City of Diamond: it's a failed (or at least postponed) trilogy. As with Walter Jon Williams's Metropolitan and City on Fire, there were supposed to be more books, but apparently either the publisher lost interest or other projects took precedence. The story does come to something of a conclusion, but most of the major story arcs aren't resolved. Emerson is still bringing more guns onto the set late in the book. None of the villains truly get their just desserts, nor do most of the character arcs fully resolve, although friendships and more have formed satisfyingly by the end of the book. There is obviously far more to both these characters and this universe, including an entire ship that was never visited and an alien whose presence should prove startling.

This is a great book: warm, funny, full of interesting characters, and with a nicely complex background universe. If it were complete in itself, or if the sequels had materialized, I would recommend it unreservedly. As is, you will have to weigh your dislike of unfinished stories against its stand-alone merits. But I enjoyed it a great deal.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2012-12-31

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