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City on Fire by Walter Jon Williams

Published by Harper Paperbacks

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

City on Fire by Walter Jon Williams is the sequel to Metropolitan. Having left her old life as a civil servant in the Scope of Jaspeer behind, Aiah travels to Caraqui, where the charismatic Constantine overthrew a corrupt government in hopes of creating his New City, a government based upon theories that power should be exercised so as to benefit all the citizens, not merely the elite. Although she wonders if he will have her so late when she did not immediately join him after the victory, Constantine quickly offers her a position in his government. Much as she had been doing as a cover for the plans to overthrow Caraqui's corrupt leadership, she will be tracking down plasm thieves and bringing them to justice. In particular he wants her to target the local form of organized crime, the Silver Hand. Aiah has bitter memories of her own sister's sufferings as a result of trying to buck organized crime, so she is quite glad to accept the mandate to destroy the Silver Hand.

Aiah soon discovers that she will have to work with the twisted, people whose genetics have been altered through the use or misuse of plasm. Because their mutations are often quite grotesque, they are subject to considerable social stigma. At first Aiah has to overcome revulsion at their presence, but in time she comes to know these people as individuals and even to respect them for their talents and abilities, and thus to see their differences as less significant, less repellant. She pulls together an innovative collection of resources, including her own talents with plasm, to track down illegal plasm houses run by the Silver Hand. In doing so, she discovers a fascinating hint of intermittant gaps in the all-encompassing Shield, through which it is possible to glimpse the universe beyond the one world to which her people have been confined for unknown ages.

In the process, she discovers that Constantine is still working with Taikoen, a "hanged man" whose very touch is inimical to human life. This miserable being was once a great mage who broke the power of the infamous Slaver Mages. However, he became so immersed in plasm that he lost contact with his own body and became a creature of pure energy. In his unnatural immortality he ever longs for the human sensation he has lost. Although he can possess a body for a time and through it enjoy human experience, he burns out bodies within a matter of days. To pay off a debt, Constantine is giving him the bodies of the worst criminals of the Silver Hand, thus solving the problem of getting rid of them.

Then crisis strikes. Neighboring metropolises, finding their power threatened by Constantine's success in implementing his progressive program, give support to the fallen former government of Caraqui, who then attack. Amidst the chaos of war, one of the three leaders of Caraqui is slain, and must be replaced by a new triumvir. Aiah calls upon the secret militia of her own Barkazil people, beaten and dispossessed since her grandmother's time, to become a mercenary force under Constantine. She also enables a Barkazil mercenary unit to extract itself from service to the enemy and switch sides. Even while the war is going on, Constantine's research forces are working on a new theory of fractionate intervals which may increase plasm production by a significant amount, enough to tip the balance of power in their favor. Aiah also searches for other plasm theives, and begins to investigate the mysterious order known only as the Dreaming Sisters who periodically generate banners that float through the air, yet whose plasm consumption does not follow normal patterns.

In the midst of the crisis, while Constantine's attention is elsewhere, the triumvir Parq, a religious leader, consolidates his own growing power and decides to enforce his religious tenets upon the public at large. His "Purification" includes the purge of all geneticly altered people from positions of any responsibility and from all respectable neighborhoods, as well as enforcement of the sumptuary laws that have long been winked at. Aiah, outraged at the abuses, uses her skill with plasm to strike against some of the worst thugs who are acting on his behest. Soon word of the avenging Golden Lady is everywhere, giving courage to the victims of Parq's tyranny.

Finally Constantine returns in triumph to displace Parq, who has thoroughally discredited the notion of theocracy. All is not well, for Taikoen is increasing his extortion on Constantine. Aiah resolves to destroy Taikoen, but despairs of how. Her discoveries about the Dreaming Sisters' extraordinary harmony and skill provides an answer. With their leader's consent, she traps Taikoen in their temple. There the sisters use their knowledge of plasm mechanics to damp out the plasm modulation that is Taikoen's being, and thus to nullify him. This is not without casualties, for Taikoen slew two dreaming sisters, and Aiah's momentary contact with his essence has warped her perceptions.At the very end, she goes back to their temple, where they give her healing.

As in the first novel, Williams goes beyond the simple stereotypes of the downtrodden protagonist who gets power, and instead delves into the deeper social and moral issues of what power means and what responsibilities rest upon those who wield it. Time and again Aiah is forced to re-examine her assumptions about the way the world works, and each time she learns that things aren't so simple as she'd been brought up to believe, and that using an overly simplistic view of the world can have disastrous consequences.

And the section in which the religious leader takes power and starts using the coercive power of the state to implement his moral visions would be very good reading for some people in the Primary World who think that a theocracy is a good idea. There are very good reasons why a true holy man should refrain from taking up the reins of government and instead keep himself apart from secular power, satisfying himself with criticizing it.

This should have been the second of a trilogy, since there are plenty of hints of a final book in which the big questions will be wrapped up -- the nature of the Shield and the mysterious glimpses of what lies beyond, the nature of the powers of the Dreaming Sisters, etc. Unfortunately, there were problems with the publisher that led to them dropping the series, leaving it dangling indefinitely.

Review posted February 23, 2010.

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