Book Review: The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders | Arthur C. Clarke 2020 Shortlist #1

This post is a part of my 2020 Arthur C. Clarke reading project where I will be reading and reviewing all the nominated titles. You can found out my thoughts about this project in my introduction post: 2020 Arthur C. Clarke Award Shortlist: Thoughts, Predictions & Reading Project.

Driftwood

Genre : Science Fiction

Publisher : Titan Books

Length : 482 pages

Format : eBook

Rating : 4.5 stars

Publication Date : February 12th 2019

Publisher’s Description

January is a dying planet – divided between a permanently frozen darkness on one side, and blazing endless sunshine on the other. Humanity clings to life, spread across two archaic cities built in the sliver of habitable dusk.

But life inside the cities is just as dangerous as the uninhabitable wastelands outside. Sophie, a student and reluctant revolutionary, is supposed to be dead, after being exiled into the night. Saved only by forming an unusual bond with the enigmatic beasts who roam the ice, Sophie vows to stay hidden from the world, hoping she can heal.

But fate has other plans – and Sophie’s ensuing odyssey and the ragtag family she finds will change the entire world.

Book review

January is tidally locked planet: half of it is always dark and frozen while the other half is scorching hot and always exposed to the sunlight. Humans are only able to live in the zone in-between the two halves, in a place that it always surrounded by dusk.

Humans have been living on January for generations but not very successfully. The climate is becoming more and more unstable and the old technology is falling apart. The colonists don’t have the means nor the knowledge to replace it. Only two cities remain standing: Xiosphant and Argelo.

Xiosphant is a city under rigid military-surveillance, the inhabitants have to follow a very strict schedule and every mishap can have terrible consequences. Argelo is quite different, under the control of several gangs, the only rules are that there are no rules. The city is under a perpetual state of chaos.

Sophie is a student living in Xiosphant, she’s quiet, shy and very much in love with her best friend Bianca. Bianca is everything Sophie isn’t: full of life, loud, tall and destined to lead people. Both of them want to change Xiosphant and make it better, they want to stop the oppressive regime, give freedom back to the people and save the world. However, when Bianca steals a few food coupons for fun, Sophie takes the blame and is exiled from the city. While Bianca could have talked her way out the sentence, Sophie can’t and she finds herself all alone on the dark side of the planet. She almost dies but is saved by a creature that humans call crocodiles (even if they look nothing like regular crocodiles). Sophie calls them the Gelet and discovers that they are doted of consciousness and that they are eager to share their knowledge with humans, if humans care to listen.

Our other protagonist is Mouth, a member of a smuggling crew called the Resourceful Couriers that goes back and forth between Argelo and Xiosphant to trade rare goods. In Xiosphant, Mouth hears about the Invention, a device that hold the memories of her lost family and that is currently detained by the Xiophanti government. Her only way to get a hold of the device is to offer her aid to a group of young revolutionaries who wants to overthrow the current government. And of course, Bianca is a part of this group.

The City of the Middle of the Night was such a wonderful surprise. I read and enjoyed All the Birds in the Sky, Charlie Jane Anders’ previous work but, it didn’t prepare me for the uniqueness of this novel. The worldbuilding is spectacular and allows Anders to play with fascinating ideas and concepts. In this world, humans have failed the colonization of January. Sure, they have been living on the planets for generations but everything is falling apart. People have lost the knowledge to develop new devices when the Mothership, the generation ship that brought them to the planet, was compromised. They are also unable to repair their old technology as they can’t find the materials needed on this planet. During the course of the novel, we get to see how Xiosphant and Argelo both try to deal with this failure in different ways and how they are unable to find solutions. Of course, even if both cities try and fail to hide this inexorable decay, the characters are not oblivious to this slow apocalypse.

The other fascinating aspect of this book was the pacing. Since the habitable zone is perpetual state of dusk, the concept of time is quite complicated. Xiosphant is ruled under an artificial night and day cycle that Xiosphanti have to follow closely. Argelo doesn’t even try to have this kind of structure. During the course of the novel, the characters find themselves in the dark zone where they are unable to know how much time passes. Anders said herself that she tried to erase the notion of time as much as possible from the novel and this coupled with the melancholic tone of the novel created a peculiar feel to the story.

Finally, the characterization was amazing. Mouth and Sophie are not likeable characters. They make stupid decisions and they trust the wrong people but their flaws made them so perfectly humans that I couldn’t help but to root for them. Even when they made stupid and painful decisions, I could always understand why. The most frustrating aspect of this book was the relationship between Bianca and Sophie. Sophie loves Bianca and Bianca doesn’t reciprocate her feelings except when she wants something out of Sophie. It was hard to read about but I think it’s important to show that all sorts of relationships can be toxic and how they can affect someone.

I also really appreciated the fact that we were not reading from the perspectives of the ones in power. Anders could have easily written a book from the perspective of Bianca or any other privileged character but, she decided to tell this story from the perspective of the forgotten ones. People who suffer from the acts of the ruling class who don’t often think (or care) about the consequences of their actions. Mouth and Sophie are not the only forgotten ones however, the Gelet are also completely ignored by the ones in power. They are intelligent creatures yet humans prefer to ignore them and act as if they are just part of January’s fauna. They never try to understand them or think about how the colonization affected them. They prefer to stay oblivious to them because acknowledging them would be admitting that they might not be the superior species of the planet.

“I can’t do this thing anymore, where we live in a tiny space and pretend it’s the whole world. People always have brand-new reasons for doing the same thing over and over.”

Charlie Jane Anders, The City in the Middle of the Night

Based on the reviews I’ve read when this book was released, I wasn’t expecting to like it as much as I did. And, to be honest, it took a bit of time to get into the rhythm of the story. I had to make a conscious effort to slow down my reading pace but, when I did, I was able to enjoy the flow and the atmosphere of the story. I wouldn’t recommend this book to everyone, it’s very peculiar but, if my review piqued your interest, please give this book a try. So far, I’ve read three of the shortlisted books and it’s without a doubt my favorite.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

“That’s the problem with grand social ideas in general, they break if you put too much weight on them.”

Charlie Jane Anders, The City in the Middle of the Night

16 thoughts on “Book Review: The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders | Arthur C. Clarke 2020 Shortlist #1

  1. Thanks for the thorough review! I‘ve got this and all the birds on my tbr. It’s strange when you search and all the other authors come up: Paul Anderson, Brandon Sanderson. And then I think: Ooh, I also should read them again 😁

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The city and All the birds in the sky are very different from each other, they both play with the coming of age trope but, I had to choose a favorite, I would go with the city. I think it’s going to stay with me more than All the Birds!
      Ah, I know all about endless TBRs haha, I was browsing my digital library yesterday and I could stop acquiring for decades and still have plenty of things to read… 😂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve had Anders’ first novel on my reading queue since forever, and now that I’ve read your review of her new work I berate myself for not getting to know this author’s work sooner… This one sounds like a very fascinating concept, and one I’m sure I will enjoy.
    Thank you so much for sharing this! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I hadn’t noticed what this book did with time in terms of the pacing, but it explains so much about the feeling of it overall. And I agree with what you said about perspective; while reading, I kept thinking about how many dystopian narratives I’ve read following Bianca-like main characters (especially in YA) as they change the world, but those books didn’t explore how their decisions might impact people less powerful and privileged than them. This really took a different angle and I love that it did.
    Great review!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It also took me a while to notice how much Anders played with the notion of time in this novel but it definitely explains a lot of the unique pacing. 🙂
      I’m glad the novel wasn’t narrated from Bianca’s perspective, I think I would have had a *very* different opinion about the book haha. I wish more authors would narrate their books from the perspective of the less privileged, not everyone can be the chosen ones but it doesn’t mean that their stories are worthless!
      Thank you so much. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Really glad you loved this one, I have a copy in my TBR and definitely need to find the time to read it. I was lucky enough to see Charlie Jane in person talk about this book with Malka Older at our local book event several months before the release and hearing her thought process and inspiration really intrigued me about the story! Now you have me wanting to pick this one up sooner rather than later. 🙂

    Like

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