Top positive review
my favorite part was the setting (and how it represented struggles among different groups of people)
Reviewed in the United States on October 13, 2017
I have kind of mixed feelings about this book. In general, I like this series a lot, and this is definitely NOT the weakest volume, but neither is it the strongest. I would not start the series with this book, but go back and read them in publication order. There are a couple of characters here who will be more meaningful if you have read some of the other books in the series, particularly Full Fathom Five. You learn a lot about Kai's background in that book, some of which really helps you understand others' reaction to her in this book (as well as helping you understand a beach visit memory from her childhood).
I feel like the star of this book is the city, only we are talking about three cities instead of just one, all kind of coexisting in the same place -- Agdel Lex, a modern (in the sense of post-God Wars, Craft-controlled civilization), Alikand (an older city with gods and angels that sort of pokes through every now and then, and also exists in the mind of older generations), and a dead city. It's hard to explain, but I actually really like this aspect of the setting. Having multiple cities coexist in the same physical space isn't new, actually, as China Mieville did it in "The City and the City," but my personal preference is for the way Max Gladstone handled it here. After destruction, conquerors came in (the Iskari, here) and imposed order, but in doing so, they marginalized a lot of the native culture, so the struggle between the two cities, or between citizens and Wreckers (beings tasked with preventing people from entering the dead city), really works on a plot level as well.
I find Alikand particularly interesting, and maybe we can revisit it in a future book (either before or after the God Wars)? Because there were a lot of concepts relating to Alikand introduced that just didn't get explored in as much depth as I would have liked (the angels, the importance of books and libraries, etc.).
Some old characters you may remember: Tara Abernathy from several previous novels (though she really just has what I would consider a supporting role here, one that could've been done by nearly any other Craftswoman), Hasim and Umar (who made brief appearances in Four Roads Cross), and Izza and Kai from Full Fathom Five. There are multiple POVs in this book, though I feel like it's mostly Kai's book. The problem I have with that is that Kai has no real ties to Agdel Lex or Alikand. Her sister is living there, and her sister is definitely caught up in events here, but I just never feel like I get WHY Kai's sister is so invested in Agdel Lex/Alikand, and that makes Kai's presence more problematic. (Kai is ostensibly visiting for business-related meetings, and she goes to a few early on, but the book kind of forgets them in the second half, and Kai ignores the occasional summons home from her employer, as well.) So I guess my main issue is that, even though I liked Kai and Tara in their own books, neither of them feels essential to THIS story. I get the sense that we were supposed to hear the story of Agdel Lex here, and probably through the eyes of people who didn't know the city well (which I do appreciate, because Kai learning about the city makes a lot more sense than a native having the same thoughts, from a narrative perspective). I'm just not all that satisfied with the reasons for Kai being the main character here.
There are also some new characters, mostly minor ones, though some of them get POV scenes. There are Zeddig, an on-again-off-again lover of Ley (who is Kai's sister) and Aman, who is Zeddig's grandmother (I think, or at least, a female ancestor who is still living). There's Raymet, a scholar who runs in some of the same circles as Zeddig. There's Gal, who is a Caamlander Knight (basically a powerful warrior on a quest; I hope we hear more about her in a future book). Zeddig and Raymet and Gal all go into the dead city from time to time to retrieve valuable books and/or artifacts. Isaak is a friend of Izza's from when she lived in Agdel Lex, and he doesn't get any POV scenes but I found myself rooting for him, nonetheless. He seems a little dense but his motives are pure and he's a good friend to Izza. Bescond and Fontaine are Iskari and both have tentacled symbiotic organisms attached to them; this is apparently part of the Iskari religion. And then there's Ley, Kai's sister, who is honestly as much of an enigma to me at the end of the book as she was at the beginning.
Anyway, I kind of liked the storylines involving the minor characters a bit more. There was something moving about Izza's religion centering on the people who are marginalized (street kids, migrants, etc.), especially near the end, and I was also rooting for Raymet and Gal's relationship. Both of them seemed like lost souls who needed each other.
This book is pretty heavy-handed with the LGBT themes. A spoiler for Full Fathom Five follows: Kai is trans. She was born in a boy's body but through what is essentially magic (to us, anyway), she transforms into a physical woman (apparently complete with a uterus). The treatment of this in Full Fathom Five was actually really good, not preachy at all. But about halfway through this book, I'm realizing there are two important trans characters and two female-female relationships (Ley and Zeddig, Raymet and Gal). Although I've felt this series was always tolerant and accepting, it just feels a little over-the-top in this particular book. (Nothing is salacious and there are no gratuitous sex scenes.) Kai's transformation in Full Fathom Five was a really good way of introducing the reader to the gods of Kavekana (her home island). I'm not all that sure there's the same sort of purpose behind having an additional trans character here unless it is meant to create sympathies between Kai and the second character, understandings of each other's past life, which may help explain why this other character goes along with something Kai suggests later on (a plan that makes little business sense otherwise). Anyway, I'm still sorting through all of this in my head. If you are looking for fiction with a strong LGBT presence, you will probably be happy with this.
The writing style is about the same here as in the past books. There is magic here, but it is more of a religious nature. Although there is some Craft, there's not as much discussing of contracts and agreements as in, say, Last First Snow. The actual reading experience for this book was pretty good. I don't think I always managed to put in my mind the same images the author was thinking of (to be fair, there is some pretty weird imagery here), but I did feel invested enough in each character and curious enough about what would happen next to pick up this book regularly and want to read more chapters than I really had time for. And now I am kind of sad that I am caught up with the series and have to wait for the next book. If a book leaves me feeling that way, I am generally positively disposed towards it.
In the end, loved the city and the conflict, the characters were mostly sympathetic (though some had more emotional impact than others), and my interest was maintained throughout the book (but especially in the second half).