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Book Review: The Hidden City by Michelle West

Genre: Epic Fantasy, Tragedy
ISBN: 0756404703
ISBN-13: 9780756404703
Format: Hardcover, 615pp
Publisher: Penguin Group (DAW)
Pub. Date: March 2008
Author Website: Michelle West

A lovingly written yet very depressing novel, The Hidden City is unlike any fantasy novel I have encountered. A tragedy with no pretensions to the contrary, this new novel by acclaimed author Michelle West visits pain upon its protagonists for over 600 pages.

The Hidden City is the beginning of a prequel to the events in West’s earlier books in the Hunter series and Sun Sword series. It relates the events leading up the war for House Terafin.

Two characters drive the plot of The Hidden City. Rath is middle aged man who has turned his back on his family’s house, and now lives in the slums of Averalaan, scraping out an existence by discovering artifacts in the hidden city beneath the bustling metropolis. Jewel “Jay” Markess is an orphan, a ten year old girl to whom Rath is strangely drawn. After Rath takes her in, he discovers that she has an extraordinary ability, and ability which causes her to gather to herself other orphans, all damaged in some way. Rath, a solitary person by nature, and psychologically damaged himself by a sister much like Jay, find Jay;s gathering of other orphans an awful state of affairs, until she manages to save a young girl from the clutches of a renegade magician. This begins a sequence of events that leads to great pain for Jay, whom Rath has come to love, and an awakening of courage within Old Rath that he had long thought lost.

The story takes place entirely within the city of Averalaan, and while sitting squarely in the category of epic fantasy, with its medieval setting and magic use, it takes a turn and incorporates some of the darker nature of the urban fantasy subgenre. The young orphans of the tale are broken, one almost to the point of being irredeemable, but Jewel, the one bright light in the story, wants to heal them all. And with her assertiveness and confidence, such a thing is possible. It is Jewel who really makes this story a worthwhile read. Thoroughly human, she has the one thing that those around her do not have, hope. She is optimistic, even in the face of some of the worst powers of darkness, and when her own spirit could have been shattered by the events around her, she is able to stay strong.

Some readers have complained about West’s writing style. She tends to use a lot of semicolons and commas, making her sentences have a run-on feel, and requiring careful attention to their structure by the reader. This style makes the reader really have to focus all of his or her attention on the book, and even then the structure of the sentences can cause one’s mind to wander. The point of the sentence is sometimes lost or missed in all of the prepositional phrases and additions to the sentence. Readers should go into this book knowing that careful attention will be required to the book, and this is no easy or light read.

The story is dark and unforgiving. This is not an epic fantasy where all goes well or you can expect an ending that leaves the heroes happy and healthy. Of course, I expect that this is not the end of Jewel or Rath’s story, and it is left open ended so we know West will be continuing the tale. But for now, this tale is anything but happy, although it has its bright moments.

Much of the tale is about the characters learning about themselves or about dealing with their hurts or the hurts of others. Much of the story is about emotion and in reality there is little action to the story. There were perhaps three fight scenes, none described in any detail, but the repercussions and the personal insights taken from these events would continue on for the rest of the book.

The length of the story is daunting, and I think if I had known what the story would entail, I’m not sure I would have picked it up. This was also my first exposure to Michelle West, so I didn’t know what to expect in terms of style and content. But I am glad I read it. It is out of the ordinary for a fantasy tale, and is a Hamlet rather than a Henry V. Fans of tales of tragedy and loss will enjoy West’s new release, and I’m sure she will continue to please her legions of fans. Fans of epic fantasy that are looking for a tale where all is well at the end should shy away from The Hidden City. All though hope is ultimately the theme of the book, the sloth of despond that the characters must go thorough to get there is harrowing and depressing. For all its faults, it is a worthy addition to the fantasy canon, both for its unusual nature, and its deep meanderings into the human psyche on the subjects of pain, loss, and hope in adversity.