Ilmar is a city under occupation. The Pallaseen (known colloquially as the Pals) have patrolled the streets for three years after deposing the admittedly not well liked Duke. They are there to smooth out the rough edges Ilmar has accrued over its lifetime. Culture is being flattened under the direction of the Schools of Correctness. The criminal gangs still maintain some control but are chafing under the friction. The students are losing their sense of identity, having to conform to new language restrictions. Workers are being ground under the boot heel of more, faster. The various migrants and refugees who fled other cities under Pallaseen control are surviving in their relevant niches but they too can feel their blood boiling. And at the center of the city lies the mysterious Anchorwood, a possible gate to another world that the Pallaseen look to exploit. What will be the last straw that allows the city to erupt in a conflagration that threatens to cleanse the Pallaseen?
City of Last Chances is one of the more ambitious standalones I have read in a long time. The premise alone could have easily spanned a trilogy, but Tchaikovsky manages to boil it down to an explosive standalone that had me on the edge of my seat from start to finish. He combines detailed and creative worldbuilding, with razor sharp character work and relentless pacing to tell the story of Ilmar, and a revolution inside the city. Tchaikovsky is no stranger to crafting beautiful, gritty worlds that feel as fantastic as they are grounded and Ilmar is only an exception because it’s within a city. He builds upon his abilities to create vast ecosystems by filling the city with refugees and citizens from surrounding metropolises, each with their own sections of the city reflecting their values. People of various backgrounds collect in certain areas to converse and take money from each other at gaming tables. Magics collide in exciting conflicts of interest. Power players of the different factions all have different goals and means by which to achieve them. The color and variety of the various people within Ilmar is heavily contrasted against the occupying Pallaseen who feel gray and repressed. Individually they have character, but as a group they are only ones who feel monolithic. It’s fascinating to see so much texture be added in such a small space.
Honestly, it’s really hard to dive into character with City of Last Chances because Tchaikovsky has an impressive cast with almost every member having a chance to narrate. Not only that, but each chapter is almost a completely different perspective. The few recurring points of view focus on characters’ nearness to the action rather than their power over the situation. The entire novel feels like the D-Day scene from Saving Private Ryan, flitting through the horrors and triumphs of a hectic situation. And Tchaikovsky not only manages to create wonderful, easily identifiable characters in a cast of dozens, he makes it look fucking easy. Characters are identified by their nicknames, roles and private names throughout the story, giving the sense of a living breathing ecosystem of relationships. He’s able to build micro histories between characters and burn them down within pages. Sure, everyone is heightened to an absurd degree to make them stand out, but the success is that no one becomes bland in the process. Everyone is a player in the game of revolution.
The story is frenetic as hell and aided by some of my favorite writing by Tchaikovsky. Usually I like his more passive narrator characters, observing the world as it changes around them, but here he just throws the reader into the mud pit. The prose is delicious and gritty, filled with an energy I didn’t expect. There are quippy inner monologues that feel true to the world and the characters. Almost every dialogue feels like a negotiation. As a reader you aren’t musing on the philosophical nature of revolution, you’re pulled into everyone’s understanding of it in the moment. It feels tangible in a way that so many stories about revolution don’t.
And I think that’s why I found Tchaikovksy’s portrayal so fascinating. This isn’t a standard “should we or should we not” story of rebellion. Yes there are parties who entertain that conversation, but the pot is boiling over, and people are scrambling for leverage. The Pallaseen are on edge, the old aristocracy wants to reclaim their birthright, the students want their culture back. Everyone may have an opinion on the proper time, and the methods by which it should be carried out, but in the end they all want it in some form or another. They want to come out stronger than they were before. It makes for a more interesting portrayal as the various groups and players add to the roiling mess it becomes. It opens space for triumph, heartbreak, anger, depression, apathy, fury, and divine will. Tchaikovsky is smashing atoms together right in front of your face and it’s glorious.
As much as I would love to do a deep dive into the various factions (all named after birds), moving parts, and the sheer ferocity Tchaikovsky puts on display in City of Last Chances, I’d be doing you a disservice. This book needs to be experienced by reading it. So I’ll leave with a little advice. Take your time, and really let the world soak in on each chapter. Pay close attention to the names people go by, how they go about their business. It can be overwhelming, especially in the beginning, but let the book guide you. It’s a hell of a ride.
Rating: City of Last Chances – Drop Everything and Read it