7 Impossible Fantasy Cities Worth the Visit

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

The Ingenious cover by John Coulthart

Modern cities are vast, wondrous, awe-inspiring things. The soaring heights, the play of light over the buildings, the constant energy in the streets—and each with its own unique ambience. But isn’t all good: cities contain secrets, and pain, and hidden pockets of rot and disrepair—whether through abandonment or willful neglect by the powerful, there are places that carry a much darker energy than the bright lights and bustling streets would have you think.

This dichotomy is what makes a city such a wonderful fantasy setting: introduce speculative elements to my mixture described above, and suddenly you can birth an impossible city, rife with shifting architecture, secret passages, and strange surprises. Here are seven of our favorite impossible cities in fantasy books—wonderful to visit, probably too strange to live in.

Athanor (The Ingenious, by Darius Hinks)
Floating outside of time and space and only coming to rest once a year for the annual Conjunction—during which it adds new districts to itself—Athanor is a massive living city controlled by a secretive group of alchemists known as the Curious Men. While the danger of the place is immediately obvious within two chapters of Darius Hinks’ new novel—its lower levels are ruled by a twisted gang of mutants, the cops know how to hide a body way too well (and also all wear cultist uniforms), and one of the Curious Men has been straight-up murdering people with a skin-shroud so he can take control of and literally bend reality. At the same time, the place feels vibrant and alive in a way few fictional metropolises do, literally pulsing and teeming with life as it travels through and around spacetime. Its constantly changing nature gives it the sense of a wild, beautiful, protean place, its danger as seductive as it is horrifying.

New Crobuzon (Perdido Street Station, by China Miéville)
Built in the ribs of an ancient, madness-inducing eldritch abomination and home to several gods, impossible monsters, and just all-around upsetting people, New Crobuzon is another city both terrifying and, at the same time, weirdly compelling. Miéville’s gods and monsters lend the city an epic air, a feeling that anything that can possibly happen does, and a great many impossible things too (but that’s what happens when you’re home to a trans-dimensional spider-god that crawls across the web of reality, cutting threads and making changes will-nilly). Even the most horrific of horrors are kind of morbidly compelling at a remove—wouldn’t you like to see the gigantic robot god that uses a corpse to talk to humans? To book a lunch meeting with the Ambassador of Hell? New Crobuzon is a terrifying place for those living in it, of course, given that the government is a fascist nightmare and the citizens are at the mercy of numerous, sometimes dream-consuming monsters. Visit its twisting streets, sure. But book your return ticket in advance, just in case.

The City (Doña Quixote and Other Citizens, by Leena Krohn)
Krohn’s unusual prose slowly builds a city out of encounters between Doña Quixote and the various other residents, and in her weird interactions with the city’s various locales, like the strange tower in the middle of the park and a carnival house of mirrors that reveal odd secrets about those who look into them. It’s one of the most livable cities on this list, given that it’s basically a magical-realist version of Krohn’s own Helsinki—with the addition of Doña Quixote, who seems to change the landscape and even the nature of the people she encounters. While a little disorienting, the city and its strange citizens aren’t actively hostile, and Dona Quixote seems like a pretty good person to know, even if the tenor of her interactions with others tend to vary wildly. On top of which, the glass sculptures scattered everywhere must make for some gorgeous evening ambiance.

Ambergris (City of Saints and Madmen, by Jeff VanderMeer)
Not many cities can claim their own freshwater giant squid. It’s pretty much just Ambergris and Lake George, if we’re being honest. But while that alone would put it ahead of the pack, Ambergris also has numerous living saints, artists, cafes, religions, and bookstores (the most prominent being the Borges Bookstore, named for one of Ambergris’ major inspirations). But while there’s a weird dreamlike atmosphere and wonderful aesthetic to Ambergris, there’s also something supremely off about the place, whether it’s the riotous festivals that cause fatalities, the extra-dimensional refugee in the city sanitarium who claims he wrote the entire city, the invasions by the indigenous fungus-people the metropolis displaced, or the ongoing uprising against foreign occupation—an incident that features one of the more cheerful mass poisonings in literary history. These contradictions are part and parcel to enjoying Ambergris, a city weird and wonderful in equal measure—even if its more horrifying elements would be best experienced on the page.

Dayzone/Nocturna/Dusk (A Man of Shadows, by Jeff Noon)
The first novel featuring perpetually out-of-his-depth private investigator Nyquist, A Man of Shadows’ gigantic city is actually three cities layered on top of each other, each neighborhood experiencing a different hour of the day: the bright Dayzone, perpetually lit by artificial bulbs representing sunlight; the moody darkness of Nocturna; and the eerie Lynchian Dusk, wrapped in perpetual fog and filled with abandoned art-deco theaters and oddly empty streets. But, lest this be thought of as simply an aesthetic, the city isn’t just lit for different hours of the day but actually seems to be comprised of them, requiring special medication and constant watch-resetting to traverse, as it’s common to experience time-slippage. Despite this, the city(ies) seems like a friendly enough place if you can adjust, though watch out for falling lightbulbs.

The Tower of Babel (Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft)
While not the weirdest place on this list, the Tower (which feels more like its own world, with its various and diverse “ringdoms,” ecosystems, and bodies of water) is still definitely up there. A clockwork sphinx watches over the various demesnes, and the place has a decidedly wild aesthetic, reminiscent of all the best weird weird fiction yet still entirely its own thing. Through the eyes of flustered everyman Thomas Senlin, the tower seems even more bizarre, its byzantine culture often hindering him as much as it helps him ascend further up the tower in search of his missing wife. Bancroft adds a nice juxtaposition to Senlin’s tour in the form of the cheerfully unhelpful Everyman’s Guide to the Tower of Babel, a travel book that’s advice stands in stark contrast to the horrors and wonders of the impossibly high metropolis.

Eth (Viscera, by Gabriel Squailia)
Eth is built on the organs of dead gods. I feel like I should get that out of the way ahead of time. It’s home to a death cult that gets high off of gigantic poisonous bugs and is building an army of flesh-golems out of guts, and was once known for being stunningly progressive—before the riots and constant revolutions meant everyone competent ruler was strung up by their entrails so the revolutionaries could briefly put a dog on the throne… before getting overthrown themselves. That this only scratches the surface of the metric ton of violent weirdness that happens in Eth says something about the city, whose numerous weird happenings are outlined in Squailia’s twisted and highly enjoyable novel of identity, revenge, and wholesale evisceration. Viscera‘s setting never distracts from the complicated, messy, and very human heart underneath all those entrails.

What impossible city would you most like to explore?

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Reality and Memory Collide in Lavie Tidhar’s Unholy Land

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

In Lavie Tidhar’s new novel Unholy Land, a suspiciously similarly named pulp writer Liro Tirosh returns to his homeland of Palestina, a Jewish state on Lake Victoria between Kenya and Uganda. Tirosh has been out of the country, living in the Reich for years, in a Germany that never perpetrated a Holocaust. But his father, a larger than life national figure, is dying, so he returns. He presses through his dreams of Berlin in the plane above Palestina, and then through customs, where he is interrogated by the secret police, and then pushed out into the strange, bright streets of his homeland.

Revisiting one’s home town, one’s native country, after a long period always causes a sense of dislocation: the smell of things and the quality of the light tend to remain the same, but the buildings, the cars, often the very scale of the place feels off, forcing the memory to stutter and warp. Tirosh’s uneasy reintegration to the place of his origin seems the usual kind of dislocation—until he is visited by an old classmate, who barges into Tirosh’s hotel room and harangues him with his very presence. Tirosh knew him as young man, but now he’s run to the thin-haired middle age, both thicker and thinner than he remembers.

The guest drinks Tirosh’s hotel liquor and rants about how Tirosh’s niece, the daughter of his war hero brother, has gone missing amid her investigations of the folklore of the wall, The Wall, the wall—the one going up now to partition the Jewish state from the displaced African populations around it. And then, the old classmate dies, poisoned, and Tirosh is blamed for it, and arrested. Even though the secret police were watching Tirosh, they missed both his friend’s entrance into the hotel room, and his death.

Here, the slippages begin in earnest: Tirosh begins thinking of himself as a detective in one of his novels, interrogating old drunks and rich socialites as he plays the flatfoot. He answers his phone and speaks to his ex-wife, but the connection is staticky, and when he looks down, the phone is a glasses case again (there are no cell phones in Palestina). These are not the only holes in Tirosh’s reality: in a remembered conversation with the literary agent who is pressing him to write more marketable fiction, Tirosh snarls, “Why don’t I write a book about, I don’t know, Adolf Hitler as a private detective?” Which is, of course, precisely the plot of Lavie Tidhar’s novel A Man Lies Dreaming. You see: Tirosh, Tidhar. We are in that kind of novel, the kind that doubles back and dodges sideways. Keeping up provides its own kind of pleasure.

There are three point of view characters in Unholy Land. Tirosh’s portions are the only in the third person, but strangely remain the most intimate, lingering in the strange fallow between his life in Berlin and his return to Palestina, running forward and back through his young life, his exodus and return, and intimate in their close observation of his thoughts and feelings. Conversely, the first person narrator, Bloom, a member of the secret police, is the most impersonal. Bloom is a terrible person, filled up with his own righteousness and fully believing in the structural and institutional cruelties he perpetrates.

The final sections are narrated in second person, and follow Nur Al-Hussaini, who is a sort of detective herself, sent to Palestina to shadow Tirosh (and Bloom, and any others influencing the ouroboros of the overt plot.) At times, the various points of view meet up, and the result is an altogether dizzying and masterful use of narrative voice. The clashing narrative perspectives produce something like parallax—looking out of one eye, and then the other, and then both focused together on a third point. Which is the operative metaphor of Unholy Land: one of partition and perspective, the same thing seen over and over and over again through different eyes.

I believe there are a number of hat tips in this novel to China Miéville’s The City & the City, which is about two central European cities superimposed onto one another, neighborhood by neighborhood, street by street, even down to rooms in the same domicile. The people of Bresźel and Ul Qoma unsee one another when they pass on the street, and any perforation of the lines between the two cities, even sightlines, results in harsh consequences. It is not quite clear if the separation between the cities is mystical or cultural, or if the difference would matter.

The Palestina of Unholy Land does not have this kind of cross-hatching, exactly, but the metaphor of partition, separation, and division operates throughout the narrative. This Jewish state in Africa is building a wall between the African people who were Palestina’s original occupants and the Jewish people who have resided in Palestina for several generations. Both, certainly, have rights of residence, and birthright, and colonization, and all the other things nations use to decide and mark citizenship. Still, there are suicide bombers on buses, unrest in the streets, and resistances on both sides of the wall.

The people of Palestina are known as Palestinians, which surprised me every time I came upon the word, this inversion of the state of things in my reality. The partition between the real Israel and Palestine is called a “separation barrier” by the Israelis, and an “apartheid wall” by the Palestinians. It is the same thing seen by two very different points of view, occupying the same space (more or less, depending on granularity): a physical manifestation of both difference and sameness. Unholy Land plays in the strange, uncomfortable DMZ between the national founding myth and the uninterrogated childhood, between the person who leaves the homeland and the one who returns.

Unholy Land is available now.

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