The City in the Middle of the Night
by Charlie Jane Anders
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
I'll see if I can be brief, since this is proving to be a difficult review to write. I've started over several times, had to delete things I deemed too spoilery. I do recommend it, although some of my comments will be less than positive, so let's get that out of the way first. Mainly, it should have been longer. The world-building and character development in The City in the Middle of the Night is strong. The most appropriate word to describe it is complex, yet there were so many elements that cried out for more detail, more backstory and elaboration. If there is ever a sequel (or prequel) I will definitely be interested.
The setting is an alien planet, dubbed January by the human settlers. It is tidally locked, with one hemisphere perpetually facing its sun, the other side in eternal, freezing darkness. Only the dusk/dawn line has been settled, with different cities facing the rigors of the planet's environment in different ways. There must be some slight perturbation of the orbit, with a rhythmic movement of the livable zone towards the sunlight, then back toward darkness on a measureable scale. The city of Xiosphant operates under the policy of Circadianism. Everything from agriculture to waste management is structured around the changes in sunlight and dark. When tilting toward the sun, shutters on all the buildings close, and it is a time for rest and sleep. It is considered radical and seditious behavior to speak out against those policies, or to be on the streets during shutters up.
Within this milieu we meet several interesting characters. Chapters alternate between the first-person account of Sophie, and the third-person perspective of Mouth. Sophie is a shy and inarticulate girl, from a poor family, whose mother had died under mysterious circumstances, and she hasn't had contact with her father or brother in years. Somehow she is accepted at the Gymnasium, the preeminent university in Xiosphant. There she meets and falls in love with the outgoing, revolutionarly-minded Bianca, although she is never able to express her emotions towards her. Mouth is a member of a group outside of Xiosphant, wandering traders/smugglers. She had previously been with another group known as The Citizens, of which she is the only survivor. Bianca steals some money, but Sophie takes the blame. Instead of simply being reprimanded, fined, or jailed, she is marched to the gates of the city and cast out into the cold darkness. Bianca and everyone else thinks she's dead, and she would be if not for a serendipitous twist of fate, which involves one of the planet's indigenous species.
This is where I need to veer away from the main plot for a bit and talk about other things I wanted to know. The generational Mothership apparently left a dying Earth in the 26th Century. By that time, there were only a few major cities surviving, including Calgary, Zagreb, Ulaanbataar (Mongolia), Nagpur (Central India), and Merida, on the Yucatan peninusula. The latter was home to the spaceport from which the Mothership launched. I would like to know more about how the world situation got to that point, and why the living compartments within the ship were segregated as to the passengers' origin and/or ethnic identity. There are only minor hints about things that happened on the journey, including deaths from radiation exposure and other accidents, even wars between different groups. Most of the ethnic loyalties endured in the makeup of the society on January, so more information on the history would have been welcome. Perhaps Anders felt the hints were enough, trusting her readers to fill in the gaps. It is a minor complaint, with the rest of the book fascinating and enjoyable, even when events bring harm to characters I cared about. At most, it's, "Wow! That's interesting. I want to know more about it." As did several of the characters.
Some parts of the plot moved slow, then there was action, then another calm period. Most events and character actions defy the predictable, with situations deteriorating due to the lack of communication. Sort of like real life. Everyone makes mistakes, from either misjudging others, trusting too much or not enough, or from selfishness, fear, or anxiety. There are betrayals and reconciliations, admonishments and forgiveness, allegiances formed then broken. Sophie has developed a rapport with an alien species, which may prove to be humanity's salvation, yet it is so radical it might never be embraced by anyone else. I'm hoping I get to find out in the future.
I frequently think I'm wasting my time here, since I will probably never be a good reviewer. I'm in awe of the really good writers, and despair I'll never be able to express my opinions sufficiently. I'm not always the most observant reader, sometimes missing clues while thinking about a point in a previous paragraph. It will take another reading, or more, to determine my final rating, but for now this gets 4(+) out of 5 stars.
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