City of Strife by Claudie Arseneault. ★★★1/2
Trigger warning: abuse
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.