New York City never sleeps, but it dreams. And down those dream streets a man must go who is not himself a dream; who is not tarnished or afraid, but a wizard. Such is the strange a frequently amusing life of the man known only as M. Let’s stroll into A City Dreaming, by Daniel Polansky.
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.
The best thing about this book is the main character, the wizard drifter M. I like his laid-back, go-with-the-flow approach to life, and how he solves his problems with his wits as often as with magic. The setting is also great, a psychedelic urban fantasy world where anything can happen, and often does. The introduction is competently executed, with the world’s rules of magic being clearly laid out in the first chapter. The colorful cast of characters, such as Boy and the two queens, is instantly intriguing and makes me eager to see M interact with them. Really, it’s a great book. There’s just one tiny problem with it…
The problem is, the book’s synopsis and subtitles are lies. It claims to be A City Dreaming: A Novel. It is not a novel. It is a collection of short stories. A novel has an overreaching plot; a beginning, a middle, and an end. A City Dreaming is a collection of episodes from M’s life; some featuring recurring characters or referencing previous events, but for the most part independent from each other and telling their own self-contained stories. And the synopsis which claims that M must intercede in the rivalry between the queens to prevent war; that is the plot of only maybe two of the stories.
At the end, nothing has really been resolved – this one crisis has been averted, but the power struggle between the two queens remains ongoing, and it is only a matter of time before their conflict once more comes to a head. M has hardly grown or changed as a character, aside from taking Flemel as his apprentice. We’ve learned nothing of M’s past other than that he himself doesn’t remember it; a plot contrivance which almost always indicates that said forgotten past will come back to haunt him. It feels like something’s missing. Like this is not a stand-alone novel, but an anthology collection of short stories – the first of multiple such collections detailing the ongoing adventures of M as he continues to struggle to preserve the balance of the city.
But no, it insists that it is a novel. Well, regardless of how much better I think the premise and execution would work in an anthology format, I have to admit that the actual novel is still pretty enjoyable – definitely above average.
Final Rating: 4/5