A slightly different version of this review appeared on at David Gemmell Awards. Since this novel didn't make the final ballot, and my review at the DGA has been up for about two months, I'm going to post a modified version of it here.
Spectra, mmpb, ebook, $7.99
Tim Lebbon’s Echo City is a dark, dense novel full of wonders and terrors and many things made up of both. The novel starts out, not really slow, but at a more restrained pace. Lebbon has a number of characters in different locations he needs to bring together, and once they start to join up, the pace is relentless and the suspense nerve-wracking.
One of the main characters is the city itself.
Echo City is ancient city. No one is sure of its age, but the city is thousands of years old. Over time the city has been built up atop the previous cities, and the lower levels are called echoes, giving the city its name. Whole buildings still exist in the echoes, along with ghosts and other more unpleasant denizens.
Echo City is quite large, with walls separating the different districts of the city known as Cantons. I seem to remember Lebbon mentioning the city was either thirty square miles or thirty miles across. I don’t recall which and can’t find the reference. Anyway, the city is large enough that portions of it have been parceled off as parks and others as farmland to feed the population.
This is important because Echo City sits in the middle of a vast, toxic desert. No one has ever crossed the desert, although many have died trying, their bones littering the landscape. That changes when the book opens.
Peer is a former Watcher, a political and religious dissident who was tortured and exiled to Skulk Canton, a disreputable part of the city used as a penal colony, a few years earlier for the belief that something could exist on the other side of the desert. One day while looking out over the desert she sees a figure stumbling across the sands towards the city wall. Descending to the base of the wall (there are holes), she helps the man in and takes him home to nurse him back to health. She soon discovers he’s not a traveler who left the city and turned back. Instead, he’s a traveler who just arrived, as evidenced by the weapons and other devices he carries with him. And he has no memory of where he came from.
The stranger’s arrival sets in motion a series of events will change Echo City forever. One Canton, the Dragerians, believe he’s their god, returned in the flesh to lead them out of the city to the northern darkness. The ruling Canton, the Marcellans, see him as a threat to their power and an affront to their god, Hanharan. And one woman, the Baker, who may be as old as the city itself, sees him as the only hope of saving Echo City from the doom that is rising through the echoes.
Soon everyone is trying to gain control of the stranger. Peer, her former lover and betrayer Gorham, and the Baker, along with some of the Baker’s twisted creations, find themselves in the middle of a brutal war, where violence is swift and betrayal is always a possibility.
The Baker is one of the most interesting and at times disturbing characters in the book. She practices a type of genetic engineering called chopping. She’s not the only practitioner, but she’s by far the best. The things that come out of her vats lend the story a sense of wonder, terror, and menace. It’s here that Lebbon’s background as a horror writer makes the story rise above the typical dark fantasy.
In addition to mastering plot and setting, Lebbon is also skilled at characterization. There are a number of viewpoint characters, and we see them through their own eyes as well as the eyes of others. We spend time with each of them, knowing their innermost thoughts and sharing their regrets and secret fears. And when they die, as some of them will, we feel their loss. The end result is fully realized individuals, ones the reader can care about, even if at times the things they do may be repulsive. And they are individuals, each with an agenda. While that agenda includes saving Echo City, they aren’t always in agreement on how to go about saving it.
Echo City is a breathtaking novel, well worth the time investment. I’ll be reading more of Lebbon’s work in the future.
Here's where I add to the review I posted on the Gemmell Awards. I've found from time to time that my mind keeps going back to this book. It's that well written. I've read a few short pieces set in Lebbon's world of Noreela. He's written several epic fantasy novels. They're going in my TBR stack, either in dead tree format or electronic format. Although his work is darker than I usually review, I think he would appeal to some of you who check in here on a regular basis. Check him out.
I'd like to thank the Gemmell Awards for sending me a review copy.