Sophia Martin’s The City Darkens, published originally as a six-part serial in 2013, is a well written and gripping read, with excellent world-building full of details of clothing, culture and religion. There is a strong Nordic influence in the names and mythology, and much that is familiar, so that it feels like a parallel world, but at times it feels like a different world entirely.
The City Darkens is set in a decopunk world where semiautonomous robots are commonplace but cars are rare and propeller-driven light aircraft are the latest tool of warcraft. It is a world where society and nature are linked inextricably with the gods, who are as real as they are ephemeral. It is a world ruled by Helésey, an island city where the aristocracy live decadent lives and play politics with gossip and sex, while the poorest of the poor live in shanty towns underground.
But all is not well. The new ruler and his high priest have upset the balance of the gods, establishing a severe patriarchy and outlawing many basic liberties. Myadar, after a decade of managing the family estate in the provinces, with only the rarest visit from her husband Reister, is suddenly uprooted and brought to the island capital. Her son Bersi is taken away from her, and she is forced into society, ignorant and grief-stricken, a pawn in the political games of others.
Until, sickened by the injustices she witnesses and by the horror of the new unnatural order, she resolves to escape with her son, even if it means adopting the guise of the legendary Raud Gríma – and even if she has to tear apart the whole world to do it.
It’s written in first person, so we learn about the island city and its society and politics along with Myadar. She’s a strong and independent woman, used to physical labour, intelligent, but very inexperienced when it comes to love and sexual desire, and especially when it comes to understanding her own desire (both romantic and sexual) for women as well as men.
Sex is a significant part of the story, and it is both erotic and explicit, and there is also a romantic subplot, but the central relationship that drives the story is that between mother and son. I hesitated to read this book for a long time, having seen it somewhere labelled as ‘bisexual’ and ‘erotica’ and worrying therefore that it would be dominated by romantic triangles and excessive sex, but I’m happy to say I was wrong.
If nothing else, it’s great to see a bisexual female superhero – or folk hero, anyway. Raud Gríma is like a cross between Robin Hood, the Scarlet Pimpernel and Batman.