by Sam J. Miller
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
A finalist for the 2018 Nebula (also 2019 Locus), Sam J. Miller's Blackfish City is a post-apocalyptic adventure set on the floating, man-made island of Quaanaaq, built atop a geo-thermal vent somewhere east of Greenland and north of Iceland. It is named for a present day town on the west coast of Greenland, but which is underwater in this future scenario. It consists of a hub and eight arms radiating away from the vent, resembling an asterisk in an aerial view. All of its residents are refugees from other areas ravaged by rising sea waters, as well as wars, pogroms, droughts, famine, and disease. As in every human settlement there are the haves and the have-nots. In this case, the haves were rich in the old world too, and now are Quaanaaq's Shareholders, owning and renting out the majority of the island's property. Most of them live on Arm Eight, in spacious apartments, while the lower classes crowd into makeshift shelters on the other Arms. There are few laws, only private security, and no restrictions on what property owners can charge for rent. Only eight Arm Managers with limited powers, usually consisting of handling tenant complaints about poor maintenance or unwarranted evictions.
Through a succession of short chapters we are introduced to the various characters: Fill, a depressed young man whose grandfather is rich and powerful; Ankit, a middle-aged woman, assistant to an Arm Manager; Kaev, a middle-aged man of the lower classes, who barely makes a living as a fighter, or I should say by throwing most of his fights; Soq, a young, non-binary delivery person and messenger. There are others they deal with through their work, as well as a mysterious woman believed to be the last of a group of people known as Nano-bonders, able to have a mental rapport with an animal. She is mentioned in the very first sentence: "People would say she came to Quaanaaq in a skiff towed by a killer whale harnessed to the front like a horse." She is referred to at various times as Killer Whale Woman, Blackfish Woman, and Little Miss Polar Bear, since she is also accompanied by a polar bear, chained and with cages locked around its head and paws. We eventually learn her name is Masaaraq, and that she has a connection to several Quaanaaq residents, although I won't give details about that. Several other relationships are revealed along the way, either familial or romantic, but not everyone reacts to the revelations in a positive way.
Practically everything about this book was unpredictable, and the conclusion was definitely unexpected. Throughout it all is the mystery of a disturbing ailment afflicting a growing number of people. Most of what people think they know is merely rumor, even for those suffering from the "breaks." Most believe it is called that because it is a mental breakdown, a break from reality. What it actually is might turn out to be a benefit rather than a curse, and the key to unraveling that might lie with a woman confined to the Cabinet, a high-security psychiatric facility. There are several villains, many pawns, and even sympathetic characters are not without their faults. It's not often I encounter a book unlike anything I've read before. This is one such book. Solid world-building, intriguing premise, fascinating characters, with a probing analysis of both selfhood and family, a disection of economics and the class system, as well as of environmental concerns. As far as I know this is a stand-alone story, so I'll have to envision the future of Masaaraq, her whale, and her surviving family as best I can. I'll be thinking about them for a long time. Recommended.
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