Daniel Polansky – A City Dreaming

M is a drifter with a sharp tongue, few scruples, and limited magical ability, who would prefer drinking artisanal beer to involving himself in the politics of the city. Alas, in the infinite nexus of the universe which is New York, trouble is a hard thing to avoid, and when a rivalry between the city’s two queens threatens to turn to all out war, M finds himself thrust in thrust in the unfamiliar position of hero. Now, to keep the apocalypse from descending on the Big Apple, he’ll have to call in every favor, waste every charm, and blow every spell he’s ever acquired – he might even have to get out of bed before noon.

Enter a world of Wall Street wolves, slumming scenesters, desperate artists, drug-induced divinities, pocket steam-punk universes, hipster zombies, and phantom subway lines. Because the city never sleeps, but is always dreaming.

It is no secret that Daniel Polansky is one of my favourite writers. I’ve adored all of his work that I’ve read so far—the only novel remaining unread being Those Below, which is waiting on my to be read shelves. As such, I was super excited to receive a review copy for his latest novel A City Dreaming. Reader, there was squeeing when I opened the package. I even read it close to its publication date in order to review it in a timely manner and then I got stuck. Because I had no idea how to even start to review it. Do not get me wrong, I really enjoyed A City Dreaming; it is an intriguing book with a unique style, but one that might not work for everyone. 

A City Dreaming is certainly Polansky’s weirdest book and perhaps his most experimental work published so far (who knows what he has stashed in a trunk somewhere) and it is a narrative that makes you work for it. The narrative isn’t linear, in the sense that you don’t start on page one and follow in a direct line to the end on the last page. Instead, the tale meanders seemingly at random from chapter to chapter in a story that is more closely cohesive than a novel of connected short stories, yet is less tightly connected than a traditional novel. But the brilliance of Polansky’s work is that even if the events related in some chapters seem a non-sequitur to what has gone before, in the end everything pulls together and no guns were left on the mantle piece.

The main character of the book is only known as M and he is very much a very Polansky hero: gruff, misanthropic in bearing (if not at heart) and very definitely telling himself he is saving the world out of self-interest, not because it is the right thing to do. I really liked M and his rag tag band of friends and frenemies. Their semi-immortal state makes their friendships long and complicated and very interesting to read about. They all seem to have known each other for aeons, all except for Flemel, who decides he is going to be M’s apprentice whether he wants it or not. M is a strong enough character to draw you along the story even when he goes down side streets, takes a wrong turn or doubles back on the timeline; I didn’t mind that it took longer because the going was interesting all the way.

The book is entitled A City Dreaming and while this is fitting to the plot, it is also fitting to how the book felt to me. M’s world has that surreal quality to it that dreams can have, where everything makes perfect sense in dream time, but when you wake up and think about it there are some huge gaps in the logic and sequences are disjointed. In a way it was reminiscent of the way Alice in Wonderland made me feel, but with the bonus that this book actually has a plot.

Is A City Dreaming Polansky’s most accessible work? No, probably not. Is it his most ambitious book to date? It just might be. If you’ve never read Polansky before, I certainly wouldn’t advise starting here — either Straight Razor Cure or Those Above would be far better starting points. However, if you like your fantasy a bit weird and wonderful, A City Dreaming is a great read. Polansky completely surprised me with this book as it was so different from his other books. Then again, each of his series and his Hugo-nominated novella The Builders are all completely different from each other, yet each uniquely Polansky, so maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.