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City of Strife: (Isandor #1) (Volume 1) Paperback – February 22, 2017
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About the Author
Claudie Arseneault is an asexual and aromantic-spectrum writer hailing from the very-French Québec City. Her long studies in biochemistry and immunology often sneak back into her science-fiction, and her love for sprawling casts invariably turns her novels into multi-storylined wonders. The most recent, City of Strife, comes out on February 22, 2017! Claudie is a founding member of The Kraken Collective and is well-known for her involvement in solarpunk, her database of aro and ace characters in speculative fiction, and her unending love of squids. Find out more on her website, at claudiearseneault.com.
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Top customer reviews
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This is another book where I'm not even certain how to begin. There is so much good, so much importance.
This is not a ghost story. But this is a story about what it is to be a ghost. To live on the fringes (of society, disenfranchised and ignored), of human interaction (keeping to the sidelines, the shadows, keeping silent, watching as others live their lives but never joining them), and of enormous times of upheaval. In all of these cases, there comes a time when the invisible are seen, when the silent speak, and when ghosts become vitally, desperately alive.
And that is my abstract, borderline-incoherent description of the emotional heart of City of Strife.
The less-figurative heart would probably be Cal.
I loved him before I even read the whole book. Snippets were enough to convince me of his awesomeness, and made me very much want the entire thing. I love this sweet, warm, funny, chubby, adorable, perceptive, welcoming, clever, brave luck-priest so much. I love the fact that he subverts just about every awful preconception and stereotype of aromantic asexual characters as being cold, aloof, uncaring, un-living, "inhuman." (He's not human, but a lot of people aren't in this book - and a lot ARE aro/ace and amazing.)
I hate how he's often treated by the people around him (though I'm confident Larryn at least will get better about this and at least he's actively Trying), and in a couple updates said I should just make a sign that reads "STOP BEING MEAN TO CAL" and hold it up at opportune moments. (I STILL MIGHT.) I hate the stark injustices and pain inflicted (often by unequal, unbalanced and un-compassionate systems) that so many people in this book have to endure, whether from institutional prejudice, or outright abuse.
But I love how they're portrayed. (As things to be overcome not by sucking it up and enduring, but by coming together and sharing strength, resources and support.) I love how everything is so very connected, and the smallest and most disparate events turn out to be integral. A city's civil war nearly starts because a cruel wizard abuses his apprentice. The place was a powder keg already, but this IS the final straw, and it very well should be. "Small" evils like this are no less deadly than the "big" ones. They should mean war. There should be revolution. Ghosts should be revealed and dirty deeds done in the shadows dragged to the light.
I just can't gush enough about the character interactions either. The friendships, established and growing bonds are so wonderfully tangible and sweet and *important.* A good piece of the core cast is aro/ace and their connections (growing queerplatonic and otherwise) are shown as every single bit as important as romantic and sexual relationships.
(Speaking of romance though, Diel and Jaeger have my heart entirely and I can't get enough of them. I don't think I ever could! For a while I was actually worried something awful would happen to them simply because I've been burned so badly by so many books that when I love a ship TOO MUCH, I start to worry. This can't possibly be real, we can't possibly get to keep them? But we do. And I'm honestly more grateful than I've been in a long time.)
I just love everyone so much. I love Arathiel's searching and trying to regain equilibrium and find pieces he recognizes of a life interrupted. I love Hasryan's fragile trust and determination to power through horrible pain, and even his reluctance to believe he's safe, and doesn't have to. I love Branwen's brilliance for disguises and subterfuge, changing the course of a city without confrontation or bloodshed, and I love HER powerful love for her family. I love Nevian and Varden and Vellien and Camilla (AND LARRYN, YES) and all their brilliant, interwoven connections, and if I started on any of them I'd never stop.
I just want more. And I hope you read and want more too.
This is told in a mosaic style, and that worked well. There weren't any POV characters that felt neglected compared to others, and all their motivations came through. I also thought the worldbuilding was done really well. It never felt like we were missing necessary information, but the worldbuilding was also never too heavy.
I really appreciated the way in which the aro and ace members of the cast are portrayed. The story isn't at all centered around those characters being aro and ace, but it's still clearly important to how they interact with others and their world. It's mentioned in really natural ways that I recognized from my own thoughts and conversations.
I picked up City of Strife because I heard it was a second world fantasy that had a lot of aro and ace characters. Turns out the entire main cast is queer!
In the city of Isandor, merchant families vie for power. But a new threat looms… The Myrian Empire aims to expand, and the first step is to conquer the city-state of Isandor. Yet the merchant families will not recognize the threat the Myrian enclave poses. The only one willing to fight the Myrians are the House Dathirii, led by an idealistic young lord. People throughout the city — from the noble’s towers to the slums of the lower city — will find themselves charting the course for Isandor’s future.
I generally liked the characters, which was a good thing because oh boy were there ton of characters. Not just characters generally, there were tons of POV characters! Off the top of my head, I can count twelve, and I think I may be missing some. At times it could be a bit overwhelming. While I may have liked most of the POV characters, it doesn’t mean they’re all good people. My favorite was probably Nevian, an aro ace wizard student with an abusive mentor. Yet, he’s probably one of the most morally grey characters of the bunch, willing to throw others under the bus to ensure his own survival.
On the other hand, I did find the character cast slanted male. And most important relationships in the book (which are all largely platonic — important doesn’t equal romantic) are between male characters or characters of different genders. The only relationship we saw between women was a wizard in the Myrian enclave trying to protect her student from Nevian’s sadistic master. It’s implied that Branwen (House Dathirii’s spymaster) and her aunt Camilla care for each other, but they only have a short scene together. I really hope the sequel pays more attention to female characters and the relationships between them.
Whenever I read a second-world fantasy book, I try to figure out what the gender norms are. I had a bit of trouble doing so for City of Strife. At first I read Isandor as egalitarian, but then one character says sexist insults to a female guard and gets called out on it. Since sexism is clearly present, it’s obviously not egalitarian. My best guess is that Isandor’s mostly like our world in that regard — it’s someplace that likes to think of itself as egalitarian when it really isn’t.
My confusion over cultural gender norms may be a result of the generally thin world building. There’s some interesting ideas at play in Isandor’s setting. Particular highlights include the fire magic and religion of the Myrians and the city being built out of towers, bridges, stairs, and walkways. It gave a whole new meaning to “upper” and “lower” class! However, while City of Strife has some interesting world building ideas, the setting never felt fully immersive. It’s hard to describe, but the best fantasy settings feel almost like they’re real places, so vivid they leap off the page. Unfortunately, City of Strife never quite got their for me. Apparently it’s based on the author’s RPG campaign? It made since in hindsight, given the elves and halflings and what not. Maybe that explains some of the trouble I had with the world building.
A topic that continually interests me is use of language in fantasy novels. What words do fantasy authors use? Should “modern” words be avoided? What constitutes “modern”? And how does this relate to identity labels for concepts such as gender and sexual orientation? Presumably, the fantasy characters are speaking in a different language, so is the story being “translated” into modern English? It’s an interesting topic, and one I’ve thought about exploring more in depth. Based on City of Strife, Claudie Arseneault comes down on the side of using language regardless of how modern it feels. This includes everything from slang such as “okay” to words such as “bisexuality,” “sexism,” and “transphobia,” that I don’t know if I’d ever seen in a second-world fantasy novel before.
In the end, the most important thing is that I had fun with City of Stife. It was easy to read, maybe a bit of a popcorn book. Plus, I really enjoyed reading a fantasy novel with a predominantly queer cast, particularly one that was aro and ace inclusive. I’d like to read the sequel, and since City of Stife ended on a cliffhanger, sooner is better than later. It’s a book I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to anyone looking for queer fantasy novels.
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Overall this book was pretty good.Read more