Review: Dark Metropolis

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Dark Metropolis
by Jaclyn Dolamore

★★★☆☆

Dark Metropolis is the second novel I’ve read this month that takes place during the Jazz Age, after Genevieve Valentine’s phenomenal The Girls at the Kingfisher Club. Except that Dark Metropolis isn’t explicitly set in the Jazz Age. The world of this novel boasts several cultural signifiers that remind the reader of nothing so much as interwar Berlin—it’s still reeling from a massive war that upset the social order, young women crop their hair and wear lipstick in defiance of their mothers, and the city is filled with the increasingly loud murmurs of revolution. But the details are never nailed down, allowing Jaclyn Dolamore to elaborate and improvise as she sees fit.

The last time I encountered something like this, I was reading Karin Lowachee’s The Gaslight Dogs, which similarly uses the American Civil War as a touchstone to extrapolate from to create a living, breathing secondary world. This is, by far, the most efficient way to create and perpetuate a setting—it’s how we got the Standard Fantasy Setting (medieval Europe) and steampunk (Victorian England). And I absolutely adore it. It’s something different, but not too different. The best worldbuilding never announces itself, and Dolamore never shouts from on high. Instead, characters are concerned about the obviously impending revolution, try to make ends meet, and keep up appearances, informed by the world that shaped them. Rustics from Irminau worry that they’ll come across as hicks in the big city; bound marriages, wherein spouses are bound together mentally, are considered as parochial and backwards as arranged marriages. It’s brilliant, deft, and fresh worldbuilding, which is one of the highest compliments I can think to give.

But Dark Metropolis is a novel, not a tabletop game manual. (Although there’s surely a supernatural Jazz Age roleplaying game out there in the world. First one named in the comments gets a No-Prize.) There’s more to consider than the depth and deftness of the worldbuilding. And that’s where it goes a little pear-shaped.

The plot is sound enough—a young woman discovers what’s really happening to the dead of the nation when she crosses paths with a young man with the ability to raise the dead. It’s even thematically rich, literalizing the exploitation of a work force by having an entire city run on slave labor. And it’s pointed out as wrong, again and again—this kind of exploitation is literally against fate because Nan Davies, as it turns out, is a bit more cosmic than initially anticipated.

But therein lies the problem: Nan Davies is not the protagonist of Dark Metropolis. While the novel feints at having an ensemble cast, its protagonist is instead Thea Holder, Nan’s fellow waitress at the Telephone Club and best friend. Thea is a perfectly serviceable protagonist at first. While initially skeptical of the revolutionaries of her city, she becomes more and more amenable to their views when her mother is carted off for the sin of being mentally compromised by being the widow of a bound marriage. She also becomes close to Freddy, the young man who is at the center of all this more than she knows.

After the halfway point, though, it becomes obvious that Nan is the more important character as we learn more and more about her and her own story. The reason that the first third or so of the novel doesn’t include her perspective is because her introduction is so seductively dramatic that I can just imagine someone having a very difficult time trying to cut it. But Dark Metropolis would work so much better from Nan’s perspective.

And that, I suppose, is a compliment, because I like Nan so much. With her as the protagonist, it would become a more straightforward Hero’s Journey, I think, although Nan actually does suffer from the things that set her apart. (She can’t hear music, for one, and she has trouble forming relationships to people because she can’t relate to them.) Plus, a novel with Nan at the center would be a fantasy novel with a queer female protagonist at its heart, one who spends her time trying to negotiate what it means to truly love someone when she has a sneaking suspicion that her beloved loves her more than she can ever love her beloved. And with that and revolution at the core of a story set in this fascinating setting? Oh, I’ve got chills just thinking about it.

Pitting the lukewarm romance of Thea and Freddy—it kind of just happens—against that is practically unfair. And, as the novel gains momentum, it starts to go fuzzy around the edges and becomes less precise, making it slightly forgettable in the last third. This, naturally, does not make me terribly interested in pursuing the inevitable series, and yet… Nan is so marvelous and Dolamore is a fantastic voice in diverse fantasy today. I’d trade a thousand generic fantasy novels for Dark Metropolis, simply because it’s trying.

This book was made available to me for publicity purposes.

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