I saw a review of a later book in the same 'Hidden Empires' series, and thought this was worth trying. Each book is an independent story, but they are all set in the same world/universe and later there is some overlap of characters. The genre is science fiction, but with a fantasy feel about it, at least for this book.
I have to admit to a certain ambivalence about this book. The setting - a decadent city with a violently seedy underworld, and a protagonist just barely surviving on the margins of society - is one that I normally avoid. I've put aside several highly rated books that zoomed in too quickly on torture or grim malevolence or piles of dismembered corpses. Life's too short to read such depressing stuff. But oddly, this one kept me turning the pages, almost despite myself, and I'm not quite sure why. Maybe because, despite the background, it's not really that grim. And another thing - why is it that, no matter how original the setting, somehow the society falls into traditional patterns? It would be refreshing for once to read about characters who get laid or stoned in safe, hygenic government-run facilities, while having to sneak around in dangerous back alleys dealing with crooks just to get themselves a wee dram. Anyway, on to the book.
The opening drew me in at once. Taro, one of the two main protagonists, is on the run, fearing for his life, in the (literal) underworld of the floating city he inhabits, since his aunt, an Angel, was killed two days before. Now the young man living off society's dregs is a dull cliche, and there's the usual heavy splattering of impenetrable jargon to wade through, but the half-Angel lineage is intriguing. Taro is a likeable character, a prostitute by choice, and charmingly well-meaning but naive, almost innocent, in many ways. Despite his best intentions, he gets himself into trouble at every turn.
The other main character, Elarn, is very different. She's also naive, and obviously forced into a horrible situation against her will, which should make her sympathetic. Instead, she's whiny and tearful and helpless and falls instantly in lurve and.... well, generally manages to be really, really irritating. If she were sixteen, this might be just about tolerable, but she appears to be much older than that (although her actual age is not mentioned, or else I missed it).
Some aspects of the book's world struck me as rather hard to believe. The attempted mugging of Elarn seemed quite implausible in a city which seems to depend for its livelihood on tourism - surely there would be some basic kind of security for arriving visitors, rather than a life-threatening encounter the instant she set foot in the city? And I found it hard to get a feel for the nuances of this society. Despite the dramatic opening with its underdog impression, within a few pages Taro is talking matter-of-factly with the Minister (presumably the equivalent of the Mayor). Later, he moves seamlessly among his gangland underworld, the high-ranking and respected Angels, and the city above, despite being effectively an outlaw. We are told repeatedly that his protected status lapsed when his aunt died, yet he moves insouciantly around the city, both above and below, without much difficulty, and seems constantly to land on his feet, whatever scrapes he gets into. But on the whole, the plot is easy to understand and free of unexplained coincidences.
The writing style is rather flat. Encounters which appear to be life-threatening actually have no tension at all. Only occasionally does the author manage to generate a crackle of real fear. But eventually, more than half way through, the story kicks into a higher gear, the stakes are ramped way up and things get nicely exciting. There's a little too much straight exposition here, and the point of view hops frenetically from one character to another, which I found distracting and a little difficult to follow, but nevertheless everything builds page-turningly to the dramatic finale. Some of the twists were predictable, and some were underwhelming, and there's an outbreak of over-wrought hyperbole near the end (although I understand the effect the author was attempting), but still the ride was fun.
For a debut, this was a competent effort, very readable and thoroughly enjoyable. I shall certainly be reading more in the series. Four stars.