Review: City of Sorcerers, David Hambling, 2022.
Back in about 1000 BC, Cthulhu snatched a bunch of women from various points in the future, human wombs to be used by the Spawn. Those are octopoid beings liked to Cthulhu and serving his ends or, perhaps, merely another form of that mysterious being. But those women escaped the Spawn, built a Wintertown, and defeated the Spawn with an alliance of nomads, townsmen from Stone, and the fearsome Sorcerers in the Last Battle.
This is the middle of a trilogy, the Age of Monsters. The typical problem with coming cold to the middle book of a series is that it’s hard to get oriented and, when the work is done and the book is finished, the story doesn’t often seem complete.
Hambling evades this by having his presenter, one William Blake (a character to be found not only in the trilogy but The Dulwich Horror and Otherstoo) summarizes the previous volume, War of the God Queen, in his introductionand gives a cast of characters. At the end of this novel, all the main conflicts are wrapped up (ok, not all of them) in ways which nicely violate expectations.
Whereas Blake got his narrative for War of the God Queen from cuneiform tablets with English text left in a cave and discovered by would-be treasure hunters, this story comes from the evidence of “fringe archaeology” and automatic writing via a medium. That allows Hambling to go from the first person narration of Jessica Morton in the first book to the wider vista of multiple characters.
Besides Damki (a nomad turned gendarme in Wintertown), we have several Handmaids, those women grabbed from various points in the future: Izabel Bethâna Viana Telles Veloso (semi-pro videogamer from the Brazil of 2104), Lady Timi Telgedi (Budapest of 1562), Rachel bat-Joseph (the Middle East of 236), and Illi (an Indian hunter from Newfoundland ca 1600). There’s also a woman native to this time and place, the High Priestess. Minor characters get their own short viewpoint sections.
The links between the world of the trilogy and Hambling’s “Stubbsverse” get tighter here with Harry Stubbs and Captain Cross mentioned as well as that medium.
The story concerns growing evidence that the Spawn are reforming for another attack on Wintertown after being nearly wiped out in the Last Battle. Not only do a few Spawn still exist in their usual form and are hunted down by nomads and an accompanying exorcist, but we come across one which appears in semi-human form.
On a trading mission to Stone whom, it is feared, will attack Wintertown, Timi comes across evidence, with the help of Illi who accompanies her as bodyguard and, if need be, assassin, that the Prince of Stone, a weak man, has allowed himself to be dominated by a foreigner named Flayer — the Lord Commander — who wants to attack Wintertown. He seems to have plenty of money for mercenaries and has built a temple to a new god.
Rachel and Damki along with a group of nomads and the likeable ex-fisherman turned gendarme Shillik are sent on a quest for the titular City of Sorcerers by the High Priestess. She says the Spawn are stirring for another attack on Wintertown.
The third major subplot is Izabel, at the request of Handmaid Marie-Therese (from the France of about 1871 and whose connection to the Paris Commune I appreciated more after recently watching a documentary on the Franco-Prussian War), trying to get the defenses of Wintertown in shape to resist Stone’s eventual attack.
As I said, Hambling’s resolution to all these subplots is novel.
Yet, there will be pain and sorrow, and not all the Handmaids are going to survive the novel or come out of it unscathed in mind or body.
Hambling brings more science fictional elements into what you might, on the surface, think will be a fantasy filled with magic. Not only is there more speculation on the nature of Cthulhu, but there is the matter of Spirit, an artificial intelligence that traveled back in time with Izabel. But, while Sister helpfully plots the trajectory of weapons in combat, it’s nearing the end of its useful life and needs a software update. It’s programming is also full of prissy 22nd century notions of non-violence and various legalisms.
Yet, things change when Flayer has his troops commit a very memorable atrocity to terrorize his enemies and bond his troops, acts so grotesque even brutal nomads are appalled.
We also get nice chapters with a small of back story for Izabel and Rachel before they were plunged back in time. We see Rachel’s life as a Jewish mystic. In fact, there is some interesting integrations of Jewish theology and mysticism into the story with Rachel.
Hambling doesn’t ignore the pain and poignancy of his characters amidst all this violence and intrigue. Mostly that’s shown in the various emotional attachments of the Handmaids. There is the political pairing of exiled Prince Crow and Marie-Therese, Timi’s occasional dalliances with a merchant in Stone, Damki’s longing for Handmaid Inzalu, his wife, and the odd relationship between Illit and ex-slave Zaya, her urban equivalent.
While you can start your reading of Hambling with this book, I’d still advise reading War of the War Queen first. For that matter, you can start with almost any of Hambling’s fiction and move to the rest. You will find the sum greater than the parts. Hambling is creating an oeuvre filled by linked works and plenty of actual historical and occult material. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if, eventually, you’ll find it in a big annotated collection.
But don’t wait for that. Read it now.