(Originally published July 11, 2009)
Too often a book series starts out promisingly…and then suffers from a crummy, stupidly predictable final installment. I am pleased to report that such is not the case with the concluding volume of the Hungry City Chronicles – “A Darkling Plain.” It’s a good finale to a remarkable series, and has a fantastic ending that will not disappoint faithful readers.
The book picks up six months after “Infernal Devices.” War between the Green Storm and the Traktionstadtsgesellschaft has broken out, resulting in the mass evacuation of many civilians from the great Traction Cities. Legions of grim airship captains, backed by inhuman cyborg Stalkers, are preparing to scour the world and “make the Earth green again.”
“A Darkling Plain” takes protagonist Tom Natsworthy back to the ruins of London, a city thought long destroyed. But deep within the ancient city lies a powerful secret that could revolutionize human existence and put an end to the great war. Meanwhile, Hester Shaw (estranged from her husband and daughter) travels with her resurrected mentor – the cyborg assassin Grike – across the desert and the wastelands.
Even more compelling: the fact that this book is about a postapocalyptic apocalypse. Seriously…most postapocalyptic novels (i.e. Alas Babylon, City of Ember) take place just after the catastrophe that wiped out human civilization. The Hungry City Chronicles go a step beyond that in envisioning a third futuristic epoch. It’s a unique and unparalleled twist that really sets this series apart.
Sounds all good, right?
Unfortunately, “A Darkling Plain” suffers from bloat – the same problem that affects a lot of authors who write long fantasy sagas (consider, for example the 1100-page “To Green Angel Tower” and the 800-page “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”). At more than 550 pages, “A Darkling Plain” is roughly 200 pages longer than any of the other installments in the series…and this isn’t necessarily a good thing.
For starters, there are too many characters. Tom, Hester, and their daughter are the backbone of this story…and any digressions from their adventures serve only to weaken the novel. It’s just hard to really care that much about every last Green Storm pilot. This makes for a lot of downtime not present in earlier volumes…something that makes it a lot easier for readers to emotionally disengage. Also…this is just a personal preference, but I really preferred the dystopian setting of “Mortal Engines” and the icy landscapes of “Predator’s Gold” to the oceans of “Infernal Devices” and the bleak, barren deserts of “A Darkling Plain.”
OK…that takes care of the complaints. Moving on to the good…
The last 75 pages of “A Darkling Plain” are truly marvelous. Honestly, I could not have written a better or more poignant ending to this phenomenal series…and that’s praise I rarely give. Too many books end with a hackneyed brute-force victory over the main villain – and then the ubiquitous happily-ever-after scene. Boring stuff in general. Fortunately, “A Darkling Plain” doesn’t have that problem. The ending is epic, tragic, romantic, and hopeful all at the same time – something that’s truly difficult to accomplish as a writer.
Violence doesn’t stray much beyond PG-13 territory, aside from a few graphic death scenes (nothing particularly bloody or sustained, though). Language and innuendo are almost nonexistent. All in all, this is a surprisingly clean fantasy series.
Worldview implications? A few. One of the biggest moral questions in the story revolves around whether the cyborg “Stalkers” (formed from a fusion of dead human brains with advanced computer technology) do in fact possess souls. Several Stalkers have the ability to recall memories from their lives as humans, which begs the question “how much is consciousness/humanity connected to the physical”? The Hungry City Chronicles effectively permit full resurrection of the dead via scientific means…in other words, souls can be accessed or recreated This whole idea hinges on the supposition that memories can be extracted from the minds of the dead – a hypothesis of dubious scientific merit. Still, it’s an intriguing concept that makes for good science fiction.
From a religious standpoint, the society of the Hungry City Chronicles is roughly polytheistic in Greco-Roman style, “worshiping” (or more accurately, revering) famous inventors, politicians, and scientists. This never really becomes much of a plot issue, though. More interesting is the spiritual journey of Dr. Oenone Zero, a surgeon who becomes a leading figure among the Green Storm. Her Christian faith is treated with reverence and respect throughout the series (and her message of “forgiveness of one’s enemies” is referenced towards the end of the novel). Even though she struggles with faith issues (and is occasionally ridiculed by hardened soldiers) she never departs from her Christianity, but rather allows it to shape her life and actions. It’s one of the most touching emotional elements of the Chronicles.
So, should you read the Hungry City Chronicles?
Absolutely. There is nothing inappropriate for teens over 13, and it’s one of the most remarkable fantasy sagas I’ve read in years. It’s a lot like Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy, but without all the atheistic overtones. The plot zips along like one of the really good Harry Potter novels (i.e. Sorcerer’s Stone, Prisoner of Azkaban), and the story carries a level of depth and complexity that books like the Inheritance Cycle just can’t match. It’s original, unpredictable, and memorable.
I really can’t think of any more synonyms for “absolutely amazing.” Maybe I should just stop here.
A smashingly good conclusion to one of my new favorite fantasy sagas. Highly recommended.