Friday, 10 December 2010
‘Echo City’ – Tim Lebbon (Spectra)
When I realised that not only had I read more of Lebbon than I thought, but I’d really enjoyed it at the same time, my anticipation was raised all the more for his novel ‘Echo City’. The short story ‘The Deification of Dal Bamore’ had me wanting to read ‘Echo City’ anyway so I was really looking forward to cracking my copy open when it came through the post. Life always seems to conspire against my reading the books that I really want to but I got there in the end. ‘Echo City’ is as gorgeous a read as you’d expect but, at the same time, it felt as if there was something missing...
Echo City is perhaps the only bastion of humanity in existence; it’s surrounded by a vast and poisonous desert so there’s no way for its citizens to be able to tell one way or the other. A brutal theocracy holds sway over the city but the impossible arrival of a man from the desert could well blow everything wide open. It’s up to a small group of revolutionaries to protect this man against those who would protect the status quo but no-one has taken into account that he may well have plans of his own.
If this wasn’t bad enough, something is stirring in the caverns below Echo City. It is vast and it is angry. When two such threats collide, will there be anything left standing by the end...?
‘Echo City’ is a gloriously atmospheric piece that pulls you right into the various Cantons and leaves you on the wall of the city, staring out across the desert and wondering what lies beyond the horizon. It was this attention to detail that had me hooked pretty much right from the start when the first, tragic, journey is made across the desert. All kinds of questions are raised in those first few pages and the atmosphere that Lebbon creates makes it all to easy to stick around and wait for the answers to present themselves. It’s not just the upper parts of the city either that are worth visiting; the caverns underneath Echo City are full of fascinating hints of thousands of years of history that you can literally feel hanging in the air. I am a big fan of cityscapes and Echo City can sit quite proudly amongst my other favourites. It’s a place where you feel that people actually live and you can’t give much more praise than that to a city that lives only on a written page.
It’s a real shame then that the story itself rattles around in such a grand setting...
Don’t get me wrong though, the plot is a good one. Like I said, there are mysteries to be solved and they are presented in such a way that you want to stick around and see how it all plays out. How could someone survive in the desert? Just what is climbing out the catacombs beneath the city? That last question in particular is posed in just the right way to encourage interest with information being doled out in drops here and there as the book moves forward.
There isn’t an awful lot of action to be found in ‘Echo City’ but when it does kick off it’s explosive, brutal and brief. Lebbon doesn’t draw things out any longer than they need to be, emphasising the violence in terms of how quickly a person can go from being alive to being just another corpse in the gutters of Echo City. Everything fits together perfectly by the end of the book showing Lebbon as someone who really pays attention to where his plot is going.
Where the problem lies, I think, is in the fact that the city and surrounding deserts are so vast that the story is never going to be able to spread out enough to fill in all the gaps. We have a very distinct group of people on a very specific mission. This mission doesn’t really branch out at all (in fact, all of the main players find themselves feeding back in to the main plot; no matter how reluctantly) so what we have as a result is a very self-contained plot perched nervously in the midst of a setting that is far more expansive. The balance just doesn’t feel right; you need something far more epic and wide ranging to sit in such a landscape. To be fair, Lebbon goes some way towards correcting this in the climatic scenes. These scenes are appropriately powerful but I couldn’t help feeling that approach would have better employed over the whole of the novel instead of just at the end...
I also found myself wondering whether the sheer weight of history behind the plot helped contribute to a general sense of flatness right at the end. After all, if you build something up to have the weight of millennia behind it then you’ve got to be able to sign off in style, you just have to! The imbalance, that I mentioned earlier, means that you can’t quite escape from a sense of anti-climax as far as this goes. Everything comes together nicely but the setting is just too big for the ending to resonate as it should.
I’d like to see more tales from ‘Echo City’, the setting is intriguing and I’d love to see the background history fleshed out more to perhaps provide that ‘epic’ wide ranging feel that this book is missing. An engrossing story that doesn’t quite gel with a far wider ranging setting.
Eight and a Quarter out of Ten