Two very different looks at fantastic cities: Nicholas Royle's Regicide and Tim Lebbon's Echo City.
Nicholas Royle's Regicide (2011) is a sultry-covered new release from Solaris. A dangerously thin book (187 pages?! That's like a Sandersonian prelude!), it introduces the mystery surrounding Carl and Annie. Carl owns a London record shop, where he mostly piddles around all day and thinks about his love life (see: High Fidelity). Annie Risk (meaningful) is a mysterious-but-alluring young woman from Manchester who bumps into Carl at a party and thoughtfully provides him grist for many a daydream. The book's slow start is like opening a (slightly stuck) window into Carl's life: his background, how he came to London, his friends and his taste in music. He's an affable gent, our Carl, and tough not to like.
At the midway point, things get a little more perplexing. Carl's been puzzling over a fragment of road map since the start of the book - he likes maps, they're just one of those things (like, I daresay, making the perfect mix-tape). The map refuses to fit anywhere, but as Regicide winds forward, Carl starts finding more evidence of a hidden city - somewhere off the A-Z entirely. It is also, judging by the scary phone calls and grim attire, something of a nasty place. As that city begins to bleed into his city, Carl winds up in a fun-house style chase - looking for escape, looking for Annie, looking for an explanation.
Regicide is largely defined by two things. First is the meandering, microscopic look into Carl's life. Bizarrely (this is fantastic fiction, right?), the book's slow start might be my favorite part. Carl is a likable guy, not a self-loathing Hornby loser, but someone that's got good stories and would be cool to hang out with at the pub. Mr. Royle has a way of fashioning a collection of individually-banal kitchen sink anecdotes into a solid character profile.
Second, Regicide also contains a dizzying array of false endings. After the long mosey of the opening three-quarters, the end of the book is one curtain being ripped away after another. Combining "ah-HA!" twists is no new thing, but Mr. Royle concatenates a good half-dozen of them. These are what make Regicide different from something like, say Neverwhere or Palimpsest. Despite being set up as a "shlub bleeds through, becomes fairyland savior" narrative, Mr. Royle's magical kingdom isn't an escape, it is a Kafkaesque industrial limbo, and Carl isn't the messiah - he's a political refugee. Regicide insists on being read through to the final page, with every paragraph serving as another turn in the maze.
(Regicide has a truly remarkable cover, and the US edition is even creepier. Cover designer Pye Parr goes into the detail on his blog.)
Tim Lebbon's Echo City (2011) is more overtly fantastic and serves as another strong example of the New Weird cityscape. Like Mark Charan Newton's Legends of the Red Sun or Alan Campbell's Sea of Ghosts, Echo City takes place in a dying world and features an imaginative (and inexplicable) fusion of magic and technology.
In this case, Echo City is a city built on its ancient past - quite literally. Beneath the streets, there's an underground city. Beneath that city are the ruins of another city. Beneath those rest the abandoned, crumbling ruins of yet another city. Beneath that... you get the picture.
The city (the top one) is also in a state of stagnation. Technological progress has crystallised into a single art: creating warped creatures known as the 'baked'. These are semi-human creatures born from vats that all fulfill discrete purposes. The telescopes, for example, are particularly horrific. Even that science has rapidly become specialised and runs the risk of being forgotten. "The Baker" is a single, isolated woman, outlawed by the ruling theocracy and hiding deep beneath the city.
Echo City is also isolated, it is completely (seemingly) alone in the world. A poisonous desert goes miles in every direction and no one knows what is on the other side (or even if there's another side). The city's status quo is brutally disrupted when a man comes stumbling in from the wasteland. Rufus, with his impossible existence and complete lack of memory, fulfills not one prophecy but thousands. The ruling priests are infuriated. The timid rebellion is galvanized. Factions of isolated, weirdly-evolved cultists crawl up and out into the light, blinking (and sharpening knives). A city that's been slowly declining for hundreds of years suddenly explodes into into violent death throes.
Like the Newton and Campbell books, Echo City is set as a race against an ecological clock. If a conventional fantasy looks at how The Glorious Empire Came to Be, the New Weird sub-genre examines How It Finally Collapsed. There's something marvellously brave about this. If the defining attribute of fantasy is still (unfortunately) world-building, it takes a particularly ballsy sort of author to craft an intricate universe and shove it over the edge of a cliff.
Although it is unfortunate that Echo City has come out the same year as those other two books (Mr. Miéville's Embassytown could probably slip into the same subgenre as well), Mr. Lebbon's book differentiates itself from the others primarily by the rate of his world's destruction. As the book unfolds, it becomes very clear that The End of the World (such as it is) is exceedingly nigh. An odd group of heroes comes together, squabbles a bit and then gets down to the dirty business of saving the day. Or, failing that, at least grabbing a few hours of said day and getting the hell out of dodge. Mr. Lebbon infuses the book with a start-to-finish tension that leaves the reader chewing his or her fingernails. Every lunch break, false start or dead end hurts - there's Something Nasty coming - good lord, why don't people understand?
I'd also be remiss if I didn't praise the opening chapter of Echo City - some of the best, Weirdest, creepiest pages I've read this year. Mr. Lebbon not only introduces his world and the gooey alchemy that makes it go, he manages to build empathy with the utterly inhuman. It is a cross between March of the Penguins and Pilgrim's Progress - a heart-tugging, deadly, symbolic journey towards distant salvation. If you are unconvinced on whether or not to try this book, the opening chapter provides the ultimate sales pitch. Hooked by those early pages, I found Echo City impossible to stop reading.