SPFBO Review: City of Burning Shadows, by Barbara J Webb

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Rating – 8/10
Author’s website
Publication date – March 12, 1014

Summary: Joshua “Ash” Drake is a man in hiding.

Hiding from the past, from the horror of his life as a priest after the gods disappeared.

Hiding from his emotions, denying the nightmares that haunt his sleep and the anger that fuels his days.

Most of all, hiding from the truth—that no matter how much he keeps his head down, no matter how he clings to the echoes of everyday life, his city—his world—is dying.

When a new technology offers salvation to his desperate city, Ash must reach out to people he left behind and step back into the world that almost killed him. But coming out of hiding now could be the worst mistake Ash has ever made.

Because there are monsters in the darkness, feeding the chaos, watching the city burn. And once those monsters know his name, Ash will never be able to hide again.

Thoughts: It’s not that common to find urban fantasy set in secondary worlds. Only a small handful of them come to mind. And it was this that made Webb’s City of Burning Shadows stand out right from the get-go for me. It’s very much urban fantasy. And it’s very much not set in our world, nor some strange post-apocalyptic version of our potential future.

It is, however, set in a post-apocalyptic world for the characters. The gods have vanished. Gone, disappeared, and aren’t coming back. For an ex-priest, finding a way to live in the new world is difficult, especially in a time of such chaos when more pressing concerns than religious crises are at hand. Water is running out for the desert city he calls his home. Rain hasn’t fallen in too long. Certain technology could save it, but that technology is a closely-guarded secret, and is danger of being misappropriated for more sinister uses.

And that doesn’t even begin to explain the sinister shadows following Ash around the city…

The narration for the story often verges on a noir feel without ever really doing more than just brushing by it, making it sometimes feel inconsistently detailed. I rarely, for instance, got a good handle on what most of the characters actually looked like, though I can picture the city streets quite vividly. The tone works, though, given the story: a man trying to a escape his past gets sucked into a dangerous mystery. It was odd, but I think that’s an entirely personal thing. I’m not used to noir stuff, and I can’t pretend that it wasn’t fitting or that it didn’t really work out, because it definitely did.

The pacing, though, it great, and City of Burning Shadows is the kind of book that you put down after a bout of reading and realise you had no idea how much time had passed. Things move along at a brisk pace, action and reflection interspersed pretty well through the pages, and Ash is a great character to follow. You get to see how the sudden absence of the gods is affecting society for people who didn’t really pay much mind to gods and to people who placed them at the very centre of their lives. It’s a really interesting way to start things off, as being part of the story but not being what the entire story is about.

So in this Webb has some great skill at worldbuilding, and in taking chances with uncommon themes. That, and she knows how to write a good mystery. Questions get answered and new questions arise, and the story grows darker and more complex and after a while you’re not entirely sure who or what is at the centre of the mystery because it could be any number of people. But as with any good mystery, the final reveal is only partly what you expect, and all of it makes sense and hints at far more interesting things to come.

I was pretty impressed by this novel. It turned out to be more than I expected at first glance, and I was pleased by the dive into the oft-ignored idea of secondary-world urban-fantasy. I think I would have liked it a bit better had there been some more detail thrown in, better description and whatnot, but overall, it was a good novel and I’m glad to have had the chance to read it. You have a protagonist who’s a man of colour, a load of different nonhuman races living in a desert city on the edge of collapse, and a very good blend of the fantastical and the technological. There’s a reason this is a strong contender for Round 2 of the SPFBO!

6 comments on “SPFBO Review: City of Burning Shadows, by Barbara J Webb

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