Savage City is the long-awaited conclusion to the Romanitas trilogy. The first two books, Romanitas (2004) and Rome Burning (2007) established Sophia McDougall's alternate history in which the Roman Empire never fell. The tightly-focused Romanitas served as an introduction to the series' principal characters. Rome Burning broadened the scope and set in motion a conflict between vast empires.
Therefore, at the start of Savage City, all the factions and players are established. Rome Burning ended with a cliff-hanger, but, well - that's what trilogies do. The battle lines are firmly drawn, the good guys and bad guys have donned the appropriate hats, time to get down to the day-saving exercises. Ms. McDougall has four hundred-odd pages to resolve everything in the genre-standard way. The Ewoks, such as they are, can begin yub nubbing away.
Except they can't.
By the end of the first chapter of Savage City, I was well outside of my comfort zone, and by the end of the second, all bets were officially off. When was the last time you were halfway through the last volume of a genre trilogy and you genuinely had no idea how it would end?
The closest comparison is probably Joe Abercrombie's First Law trilogy, but even then, there are some distinct differences. Mr. Abercrombie's series is a subversion of high fantasy tropes. He adds a layer of gritty, "real world" moral ambiguity on top of a traditional fantasy story. But the strength of the First Law is that these are all easily-recognisable tropes being visibly distorted. Because of this, the ending to the series isn't unexpected: the high king marries the beautiful princess and takes the throne, the ranger returns to the wild, the wizard mysteriously disappears until he is next summoned to save the day. However, Mr. Abercrombie joyously (and viciously) twists each of these staples to fit his series' distinct style. He's doing it in his own way, and it is brilliantly done - but he's still following the rules.
In Savage City, there are no rules at all. And it is wonderful.
In fact, the most frustrating aspect of Savage City is that it is virtually impossible to review without spoilers. As someone that came to the book spoiler-free, I don't want to ruin that experience for anyone else. With each page, anything can happen. The good guys are in real danger. The bad guys can win. And beyond the plot, Ms. McDougall moves swiftly past other barriers as well: race, gender and sexuality are both relevant and irrelevant in exactly the right balance. Everyone counts as a person and as a well-defined character.
Sure, there's still magic and destiny and all those things that we demand from our genre reading, but it all takes a backseat to the compelling whirlwind of a story. Savage City is about a handful of bruised and battered people being swept away in the tide of (alternate) history, and the reader is carried right along with them.
It helps that Ms. McDougall still insists on keeping her characters at the heart of the story. In the first two volumes, the author proved that she's committed to driving her books through the characters rather than through world-building. As a result, both heroes and villains are all oddly-sympathetic figures. The author brings their motivations and compulsions to life in such a compelling way that it is difficult for the reader not to suffer alongside both parties. Savage City continues along this vein, further frustrating devotees of traditional science fiction. There are mysterious doomsday devices, tantalizing foreign cultures and futuristic continent-spanning battles, but none of these actually matter very much. Oh, they certainly mean something in a "this is the sort of doohickey that changes the world" kind of way, but, for the reader, we experience all of these through the eyes of the characters. And the characters? They have other, more pressing concerns (generally "survival", but occasionally "food" and, every now and then, "saving the world" or "falling in love").
It is tough to review a book without being able to provide detail, but if you're in a trusting mood, trust me on this one. Romanitas was promising, Rome Burning was brilliant and Savage City may be one of the single finest works of science fiction I've ever read. This is a genre ostensibly defined by bravery and imagination, yet it is still only on the rarest of occasions that someone has the courage to break the mold entirely. This is one of those books. Seize it. Savage City is beautiful, heart-breaking, uplifting, invigorating, inescapable and ceaselessly, relentlessly, wonderfully surprising.