A City Dreaming by Daniel Polansky (book review).

M is a wizard or at least someone who views the natural laws of physics as merely very loose guidelines. Living in New York, he encounters an awful lot of people with a similar world view, ranging from the two powerful Queens of New York who control entire areas to the old man who just makes the parks a little bit greener. Everywhere he goes, M seems to run into improbable situations but, once he’s survived the train ride to the Nexus, escaped the quest-based alternate reality that lies behind an alley doorway and liberated a bunch of zombie servants, what else is left? I suppose saving the city might be one option…


‘A City Dreaming’ is a new urban fantasy novel from Daniel Polansky, whom I first discovered with his gritty ‘Low Town’ series. If you’re expecting more in the same vein as the ‘Low Town’ books, then you’re certainly in for a surprise because Polansky has taken quite a different approach to his latest book.

As I started ‘A City Dreaming’, I was intrigued by the new world we were presented with. This was a world where anything might be possible and in which our protagonist, simply named ‘M’, bounced from improbable scenario to mind-bendingly bizarre situation without even blinking. I wondered where the story was going to take us and how the first few seemingly unconnected chapters would come together as part of the grand plot arc that must surely exist or perhaps not…

Unfortunately, this ‘novel’ is more a collection of very short stories, largely unconnected, apart from M and a few recurring characters. The characters were pretty flat throughout and the chapters continued to be standalone snippets, fragments that might form part of a bigger story but that were never developed. It seemed more like a collection of ideas for stories than a full novel in its own right and I found this incredibly frustrating. With no over-arching plot to follow, it became a tedious read because we never explored situations or characters in any depth and there was a real lack of coherence between the chapters.

Something I also found frustrating was the lack of rules. Fantasy worlds open up huge amounts of possibilities and the imagination can take us anywhere, but there still need to be some rules, some kind of cost to the magic or some kind of limitation to what it can be used to achieve. In ‘A City Dreaming’ there are no rules, no limitations and no consequences. Perhaps if this had been formed into a tight plot where the only limitation was the magic user’s imagination this could have worked but, when there’s no structure to the story or the fantasy elements, it becomes as arbitrary as the ramblings of a two year-old child.

You might have guessed by now that I wasn’t all that taken with this book. I feel that it doesn’t work as a novel and would make a disappointingly shallow book of short stories. Instead of throwing in everything he could possibly think of, Polansky might have been better to take three or four of the good ideas in here (there are plenty of good ideas) and really fleshed them out, thinking about how they might have worked, what the consequences would be and how they’d affect the characters. Developing the characters beyond the comic-strip level of depth we see here would have added a lot, but really it’s the lack of plot that means other indulgences can’t be forgiven. I have no idea what the editors of this one were thinking, but I am definitely not on the same page…

Vinca Russell

September 2016

(pub: Hodder & Stoughton. 304 page hardback. Price: £18.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-47363-425-1)

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