Having enjoyed The City Darkens so much, I requested an advance copy of After the Fall (due out tomorrow) from the author for this review. Let me start with the conclusion that this is a gripping read, and if you enjoyed The City Darkens then you will enjoy this sequel.
In The City Darkens, Myadar Sölbói is a woman on a mission to recover her son and escape with him from the horror of the new and unnatural patriarchy. Her peril is immediate and her actions focussed – and her influence on history significant. The dense first-person narrative suits the story well, as relentless as Myadar in her struggle to recover her son.
After the Fall is set in the aftermath of the events of The City Darkens but is narrated by Ginna Alvör rather than Myadar Sölbói. A number of characters from the first book do appear in the second, and the two books need to be read in order, but despite all the similarities these are very different books. Here the peril to Ginna and her family is less clear and her purpose is often just to survive from day to day. She is someone caught up in the great events of the day, a witness from the edges, narrowly escaping death on many occasions.
At the start of the book, Ginna is the lowest of the low, an unaffiliated whore working to feed her family who live amidst the very poorest of the city’s inhabitants, but she can read and write and devours ancient books full of the rich mythology that underlies the culture. Her narrative voice echoes her lower class status:
Rokja never asks for nowt, but that don’t mean I don’t spend a fair amount of time finding stuff for her, either ’cause Amma says she needs it or ’cause I get it into my head she does. And then there’s Ótti, who only ever asks for laudanum—but that’s plenty, considering.
But she is both blessed and cursed by the gods, and has the potential to become a figure of great power – but she shies away from this path, fearful of the chaos that accompanies it. So much of the story is about the horrors of life in the wake of the civil uprising and the bombing of the city at the end of The City Darkens. More than anything, After the Fall is about the consequences of action.
But there is also much that I find frustrating. Ginna is so often a passive character, and when she is active her actions often have very little consequence. Where Myadar makes history, Ginna is swallowed up by it. We glimpse the world around her, but never really understand it. We keep waiting for her to become who she must become, and at the moment she does – perhaps – the story ends. It feels not like a story in its own right, but more like a backstory in preparation for the real story yet to come.
I feel the novel is crippled by the linear timeline and the myopia of the first-person narrative. The author in me wants to tear it all up and rearrange the pieces. Ginna’s strange fate leads her to a position with the blind queen, reading and writing messages, but also reading the old mythologies that she loves. I wonder how it would work to start here, Ginna sharing these stories with the reader as well as with the queen, weaving her own story in with the others she tells, ‘seeing’ the outside world through the same words that the blind queen ‘sees’ it, the relationship between the two women perhaps evolving from antagonism to affection. It would be a much slower read, but richer and far more intimate.