City on Fire, Walter Jon Williams

Harper Prism, 1997, 498 pages, C$32.00 hc, ISBN 0-06-105213-2

Walter Jon Williams is undoubtedly one of the best SF writers today. The fascinating thing is that he has become such by producing an array of remarkably different novels: From cyberpunk (Hardwired) to near-future police procedural (Days of Atonement) to all-out Big SF (Aristoi) to humorous comedy of manners (The Drake Maijstral trilogy), Williams manages to entertain with considerable wit and style.

His latest book, City on Fire is the first “straight” sequel he has written. Strangely, it’s a book that manages to be sufficiently different from the original to be interesting, all the while being a logical successor to the previous work: Metropolitan was probably the truest example of urban fantasy ever. Starting from the basic premise that certain arrangements of metal and concrete produce a quasi-magical force called plasm, Williams crafted a novel of ambition, revolution and multifaceted power. Aiah, a lowly plasm inspector, accidentally discovers a hidden plasm reserve, which she then offers it to one of the aristocrat (Constantine, a Metropolitan) of her city. Romance and revolution ensued, with the result that Metropolitan ended with a newly-conquered city, and tons of loose ends.

City on Fire begins as Aiah returns to the newly conquered city, ostensibly to take up a new job as head of a plasm enforcement unit, but also to be closer to Constantine. Most of the book is political in nature: The crosses and double-crosses necessary to maintain a fragile new alliance over the recently liberated city are numerous, and not uninteresting.

The sequel is a bigger book than the original, and also possibly a better work. After the first few pages, the reader is completely integrated in Williams’ latest world. Political fiction always run the danger of becoming a meaningless jumble of names and parties but fortunately, Williams’ storytelling skills avoid this.

The style has a certain flourish, but most readers won’t notice this, as they’ll be caught up in Aiah’s rise through the city’s hierarchy. The main protagonists are exceptionally well handled, and even minor characters are distinct and easily remembered. Every scene in the book is intercut with headlines and ads from the city’s media, an effective trick that was under-used in Metropolitan.

Since this series seems to be headed toward being a trilogy, it is interesting to note that in Metropolitan, Aiah is Constantine’s subordinate. By the End of City on Fire, however, she is beginning to be his equal. This will be interesting to watch in the third volume.

Metropolitan had the distinction of being a fantasy with most of hard science-fiction’s concern for consistency and world-building. Indeed, some reviewers called Metropolitan SF, rationalizing the shield and plasm as sufficiently advanced technology. The debate isn’t likely to be resolved in City on Fire, but the indicators seem to point toward an interesting sequel…

While City on Fire isn’t exciting at the level of Williams’ best novels, it is a sufficiently attractive read for any reader with an interest in the author, Metropolitan, or complex political stories. Perhaps not flamboyant enough to warrant being bought in hardcover, but probably worth the paperback price.

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